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Making at Windward: Joan and Rich's Blog

7th Graders Asked to Help Save Southern California's Trees

We often think of “science” as something that is beyond the reach of the average person. However there are now many “citizen science” projects that can involve the public (including 7th graders!) to help out professional scientists.  One area where citizen scientists can really help is to track the spread of invasive species -- plants, or bugs, or animals that are not native to an ecosystem, but get introduced when people or goods travel around the world.

Windward students may be able to help out a group of scientists trying to fight a particularly nasty invasive species - a bug called the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer (PSHB). “Poly” means “many” and “phagous” means “eat.” It’s (unfortunately) a great name for this beetle, which can chew into many different trees. A female beetle ready to lay eggs bores into a tree, and while she is doing that releases a fungus (Fusarium euwallacea) which then makes it hard for the tree to pump water to its leaves. The tree dies back slowly from the branch tips, frequently eventually dying completely. In its native Southeast Asia, there are other things that keep in it in check. In Southern California, though, it seems to have no natural enemies, and most common ways of dealing with a beetle like this won’t work for one reason or another, so it is spreading fast.

It’s also pretty hard to see. In the beginning there’s just the holes the beetles went into, and sometimes fluid leaking from the tree from the holes. Here is what one Western Sycamore that might be infected looks like.

Right now it is very early in the effort to contain the beetle. One thing that scientists want to know is how much it has spread, and what kinds of trees it can live in. They also want to figure out what kinds of things make it more likely to bore into a tree.  Is the drought making trees more vulnerable, and how do we measure that? Do they go from drier areas into damper ones, or cooler ones, or…?

Fortunately, as bugs have spread more easily around the planet, it has gotten easier and cheaper to take data in the field.  Windward students will be learning about how to use an Arduino (pictured below).  Arduinos are small microprocessors that can handle taking data from humidity, temperature, methane and similar sensors. Or an Arduino can monitor a sensor to notice when a bug has fallen into a trap and store the results on an SD card to be picked up later.  

Joan explained all this to the 7th graders (after a kind invite from their teachers!) as part of their planning for their Challenge Based Learning projects this spring, in which they are supposed to have a measurable effect on biodiversity.  They will have access to 3D printers, sensors and other things that will let them design experiments to carefully measure aspects of whatever ecosystem they decide to study. And maybe one of them will figure out what an invasive species is doing and help stop it! Stay tuned for later installments about Windward excursions into citizen science.

Want to know more about this invasive beetle?  The official UC Riverside site, with links to lots of resources, can be found here.

Or to see how the bug has been spreading, you can use an interactive map here.

Or you can join an ongoing citizen science observation project yourself here.

Got a project you would like to try out with 3D printing, robots, sensors or other technology? Joan and Rich are both at Windward on Wednesdays and Joan is here one other day a week. Drop by room 425 to see what’s possible. 

-Joan Horvath is a recovering rocket scientist, and Rich “Whosawhatsis” Cameron is a 3D printing and electronics hacker. Together they have founded Nonscriptum LLC, a consultancy to help educators and scientists use low-cost prototyping technologies. They are also writing books on the subject: next up is “The New Shop Class: Getting Started with 3D Printing, Arduino, and Wearable Tech,” coming from Apress in May.

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