Teachers flourish as Research Assistants in the Daintree

In May 2018, seven teachers from all around Australia arrived in the spectacular Daintree Rainforest on the far north coast of Queensland. They were working as citizen scientists for a week, helping to collect data for Mangrove research alongside scientist, Jock Mackenzie from Mangrove Watch. None of the teachers had participated as research assistants before, making this all the more exciting. All that was needed is a spirit of adventure and a passion to learn and teach about the environment!

Teachlive is the program which enables them this exciting opportunity, developed by Earthwatch Australia. The program aims to give science and geography teachers a hands-on approach to Professional Development in scientific skills and data collection; but also aims to convey a passion of science and the environment to their students and the broader community. Throughout the trip, students were kept up-to-date with their teachers’ expedition in the Daintree, through blogs on the Teachlive website, lesson plans, and a Skype call (internet reception permitting).

In return, the scientists conducting the research get much needed labour for their work. The field work in these mangroves is particularly detailed and time-consuming, so having many hands-on-deck is much appreciated.

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Navigating through mangroves is very tricky business, with soft and sticky mud in abundance, and a carpet of roots protruding vertically from the ground in in all directions. Add to this some mosquitos and sand-flies and things really get adventurous! Nevertheless, spirit was never lost. The teachers maintained a strong determination to move quickly and worked very efficiently as a team in collecting the data. The measurements taken on the trees will be later used to calculate a “blue carbon” (see further below) estimation for the forest.

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Appreciatively for some, the research also involved filming the banks of the Daintree River from a boat (called Shoreline Video Assessment Method, or S-VAM). This proved a much more comfortable task, but still required the effective team-work of the teachers in aligning all the roles for the task. The footage recorded is later matched to GPS locations also recorded along the way, as well as a written description of the shoreline and mangrove health. Through comparison of this data over successive years, a comprehensive understanding of how the health of the shoreline and mangroves are changing is developed, and can be used to work towards better management practices and regulations for preserving this important ecosystem.

 

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In between filming on the boat, the teachers had a chance to view some of the remarkable wildlife and stunning dense rainforest while cruising up and down the river. Numerous crocodiles were sighted. As were many stunning birds, including Sea Eagles, Azure Kingfishers, and herons. A brave common tree snake also put on a great show for us, extending itself off a tree branch to drink from the river.

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Evening time was allocated for the teachers to compose their daily blogs. Once uploaded through the rainforest-suppressed data signal, their students and colleagues back home were very excited to read of their exciting rainforest adventures. The teachers had also developed lesson plans around the relevant topics, so their students could simultaneously learn about Mangroves while they are in the field researching them.

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Overall, the week was a great success. The scientist coordinating the research was very happy with the work the team completed - especially the extra effort in some unexpectedly challenging areas.

Most of all, many of the teachers commented on how much they learnt about Mangroves, for example:

  • • They are often called “Coastal Kidneys” due to their high sediment-trapping abilities; therefore preventing sediment, pollution and heavy metals from entering the Great Barrier Reef
  • • They are important breeding grounds for a significant number of fish species – It is estimated that 75% of commercially caught fish in Queensland spend some part of their life cycles in the mangroves.
  • • Mangroves are massive carbon sequesters, preventing large amounts of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. The term “blue carbon”, is given to coastal and ocean ecosystems which also includes salt marshes and seagrasses. Blue carbon can store carbon 40 times faster than the green carbon of trees and forests! They are also responsible for 10% of global carbon burial.
  • • The crabs which dominate the forest floor aid in this carbon sequestration and are a keystone species in these ecosystems. They essentially vacuum the floor of the mangrove forest, bringing fallen leaves into their burrows, where they store, eat and then excrete them; ensuring very effective carbon storage.

On return of their trip, teachers were already planning to develop new science learning initiatives at their respective schools.

Sandra McCullough is the Program Manager for Teachlive at Earthwatch Australia