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Uintas Pika Watch or: how I learned to stop worrying and love middle schoolers

2018 AAAS Early Career Award winner Johanna Varner | Johanna Varner

This content was originally written and posted by Johanna Varner on the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists. We have posted it here, with permission.

A decade ago, I would have NEVER have believed that I would write the following words, but here they are: I love working with 7th graders! My twenty-something self would have further cringed at the idea of leading dozens of boisterous middle schoolers through quiet mountain landscapes. And yet, here I am, traipsing across alpine boulder fields with 60 of my closest 7th grade friends.

So, how did I get here? When I began really thinking about inaction on CO2 emissions, I realized there was a disconnect between understanding that climate change is happening on an abstract level and viscerally feeling as though one has experienced its effects. Climate change can often feel as though it will happen in a distant place at a future time. I decided that we needed a better way to connect policy makers and voters with the changes happening today.

Digging deeper, I learned that close connections with science and nature are often forged in those terrifying, but formative, middle school years. Still wincing at the thought of addressing a room full of 13 year olds, I participated in a K-12 teaching fellowship as a first-year graduate student. Fortunately, I was paired with two fantastic teachers at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education who taught me how not-scary 7th graders actually are. In fact, they are a rare group that has enough knowledge to tackle real science, yet retains their youthful, energetic curiosity about the natural world.

Uintas Pika Watch is born

Pika in its rocky habitat | Johanna Varner

As it happened, the perfect creature for this endeavor was also already calling out for help. Pikas are potato-sized mammals that live in the mountains of western North America. I have always been mildly obsessed with pikas (ask my college roommates), and fortunately they are also ideal for observing the direct effects of climate change. On a practical level, they’re diurnal, easy to identify and observe, and they live in accessible recreation areas near Salt Lake City. Moreover, it’s hard not to love these charismatic and clever animals! However, the pika’s adaptations for surviving inhospitable alpine winters come at a cost: they struggle with warmer summers and thinner snowpack caused by climate change. Dramatic declines have already been observed in some areas, particularly where populations are isolated from each other.

After my teaching fellowship ended, the teachers and I continued to collaborate on a long-term student project to monitor local pikas. Since the pikas in Utah’s Wasatch and Uinta mountain ranges are understudied, the kids also contributed valuable scientific data. In 2011, we bused the first 60 students up to Alta Ski Area, where they began observations. Each student learned how to estimate the number of pikas at a site and survey plants that pikas eat. We also set out temperature sensors to record pika-relevant microclimates in the rockslides.

We collected data at four sites that span a 3,000-foot elevational gradient, and each year of observations built upon the last. In 2013, for the first time, the students did not find pikas at the lowest elevations. When they turned to their data, they independently discovered that extreme temperatures at lower elevations might stress pikas throughout the year, a leading hypothesis among scientists. The students also analyzed different aspects of their data in groups and presented their findings to the University community in a special science fair called “Pika-Palooza.”

Lovely story, but did it work?

Students present their research to teachers, parents, and University staff/faculty at “Pika Palooza.” | Johanna Varner

Before and after the pika experience, the students took a survey about content knowledge as well as attitudes towards the environment. One thing we asked was whether the students believed climate change was happening. We were thrilled to find that significantly more students agreed with the scientific consensus after the project. They also gained content knowledge and felt a stronger sense of environmental stewardship after the experience than they had before.

And this enthusiasm can persist: several years after their first field trip, many of our former students continue to excitedly submit their own pika observations from hiking with their families over the summer. Perhaps two key aspects of this sustained interest were the local relevance of the project and the fact that students took ownership of the whole scientific process, from collecting data to analysis and presentation.

Our role as scientists: is rB > C?

PikaJo Field Trip
Johanna Varner leading a field trip in Utah’s Wasatch mountains | Kyphuong Luong

I, too, learned things by working with the kids. Notably, I discovered that involving kids in scientific research is not a wholly altruistic endeavor for us as scientists. In a program like ours, the kids are collecting real data that can be used in ecological syntheses. They also really enriched my research with their creative perspectives and fresh observations.

Though this project may not have immediate global impacts, I keep telling my twenty-something self (and others who similarly shudder at the words “middle school”) that even small effects on today’s youth can profoundly shape tomorrow’s policy makers and citizens.

About Johanna Varner

Johanna "Pika Jo" Varner received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She then changed gears to study ecology and evolutionary biology at University of Utah for her doctoral degree. She is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Colorado Mesa University and the winner of the 2018 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science.

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