A collaborative effort between a junior high school and a nearby university allowed 40 eighth-grade honors students to engage in a scientific investigation within a university laboratory. These students, with their science teachers and university researchers, gathered data on egg cannibalism in a beach-spawning fish and thereby contributed to an ongoing research project. Our objectives were to provide a scientific learning experience for the students and introduce them to a college setting. A survey, given 2.5 years after the investigation, found that most of the students had increased their interest in studying science in college.

A unique college experience and scientific investigation were provided to 40 eighth-grade honors students from a junior high school. We planned an inquiry whereby students would gather data in a biology laboratory at a nearby university to discover whether egg cannibalism occurs when the California grunion (Leuresthes tenuis) spawns on the beach. Most (~90%) of the students selected for this project were from lower socioeconomic groups and potentially represented the first generation of their families to attend college. Students wrote a brief essay of interest and filled out an application to be accepted into the project. Although many students at various grade levels visit college campuses, few actively participate in actual scientific research projects. Studies have shown that middle and high school students who are given innovative learning opportunities and belong to academic support programs have higher success rates in high school and in being accepted to college (Guthrie & Guthrie, 2000; U.S. Department of Education, 2008). The students were taken to a field site to observe the grunion’s habitat and then three times to a university lab to undertake a component of real research in which the scientific method was used, following the California Standards for Eighth Grade Science and National Science Education Standards (California Department of Education, 2000; National Research Council, 2012).

This project was a collaborative effort led by two junior high school science teachers, a biology graduate student, and a university professor. The idea for the study came about after the graduate student observed grunion eggs in the mouth and foregut of grunion collected during a spawning run at Cabrillo Beach in southern California. The four of us devised a plan to bring the eighth graders to the university to enrich their scientific knowledge by helping them develop a hypothesis and gather real data to test the hypothesis using grunion specimens already collected for a different research project. We worked as a team to guide the students during their lab work.

At the outset, several learning goals were established for the students. First and foremost, we strived to give them an indelible academic experience. They would gather actual scientific data in a university lab, and eat lunch during each visit at the university’s food court to provide them the social aspect of college life. Prior to working in the lab, the students were taken to Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, California, to learn and experience the natural history of the California grunion, including a visit to the nearby beach where the grunion spawns. Students were taught that the California grunion, with a maximum size of 19 cm, is a marine bony fish that ranges from San Francisco, California, south to Magdalena Bay, Mexico (Miller & Lea, 1972). This fish has the unique behavior of coming onto the beach at night, often in large numbers, to deposit its eggs in the sand following new and full moon phases (Figures 1 and 2). This behavior has been documented extensively over the years (Thompson & Thompson, 1919; Clark, 1925; Walker, 1952; Griem & Martin, 2002; http://grunion.pepperdine.edu). The eggs hatch in 2 weeks, and the larvae are then washed out to sea. Peak spawning occurs from March through June. Although the students did not observe a grunion spawning run, they made observations in the field of the fish’s spawning habitat. Following our direction, the students sketched the spawning act of the grunion in their science notebook (Figure 3). At the aquarium, the students had the opportunity to ask questions about the mating habits of this and other fish species. Staff members gave an overview of grunion spawning behavior using a short film and showed the students live eggs, larvae, and juvenile grunion.

Figure 1.

A large spawning event of California grunion at Doheny Beach.

Figure 1.

A large spawning event of California grunion at Doheny Beach.

Figure 2.

A spawning pair of California grunion at Doheny Beach.

Figure 2.

A spawning pair of California grunion at Doheny Beach.

Figure 3.

A spawning pair of California grunion.

Figure 3.

A spawning pair of California grunion.

We wanted the students to apply their knowledge and skills, learned at school and at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, to this research project. One section of the California standards for eighth- grade science focuses on investigation and experimentation (California Department of Education, 2000), so the students were required to follow the scientific method and record all information in a science notebook. Many of the tasks in the project also covered many of the Common Core literacy standards, such as listening, speaking, and writing. Common Core literacy standards for science include following multistep procedures, taking measurements, using words or phrases in a scientific context, and integrating text with graphs or tables (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). Through our guidance, the students developed a testable hypothesis, collected and organized data, created graphs, and wrote conclusions based on the evidence they had compiled, all of which follow the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) and the Framework for K–12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012). The students had been taught that scientific investigations start with good questions. We presented them with the following question: “Do grunion ingest their own eggs during spawning runs?” Then they worked in pairs to discuss possible hypotheses using the knowledge they had gained from the aquarium trip. They worked as a group to develop the following hypothesis: “If grunion from different locations have eggs in their foregut, then these results will indicate that the fish is cannibalistic.” The students undertook the investigation to test this hypothesis during three visits to the university lab.

Materials

Grunion samples available for the project were collected on three different southern California beaches (Malibu Surf Rider, Long Beach Pier, and Belmont Shore) by a graduate student in biology at California State University (CSU) Fullerton interested in the mineral composition of the otoliths (ear bones) of grunion for a study of genetic connectivity among grunion populations. This student collected the grunion during spawning events under a scientific collecting permit issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and under a protocol approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at CSU Fullerton. Given that the graduate student was interested only in the otoliths located in the cranium of the fish, the bodies of the fish, including the digestive tract (foregut), were available for the project, thereby allowing a second use of the specimens. The fish had been frozen since collection in a –80°C freezer when the project began. After we finished, the carcasses remained available for further studies. Most of the dissecting supplies for the project were provided by the GEAR UP Program (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) on the CSU Fullerton campus.

Methods & Results

Prior to this project, the students had acquired basic lab skills at their school by working in pairs and small groups, using equipment to answer scientific questions in their regular classroom. Routinely, the students start inquiry-based activities with a focus question that leads them through the scientific method. We had three opportunities to engage the students in this process at CSU Fullerton. On the first visit, the safety guidelines of the lab were explained, the project was described, and the fish’s anatomy was reviewed. The students were taught how to dissect the fish, to count any eggs observed in the foregut (Figure 4), and to record data (Table 1). (Details of the grunion dissection are available by e-mail from any one of the authors.) Then the students used their science notebook and worked in pairs to practice dissecting grunion. To aid in data recording and organizing, we assigned each pair of students a number that corresponded to the raw data tables for each site, to prevent confusion when gathering and sharing the information. On the second and third visits, the students focused on dissecting the fish and counting the eggs in each foregut. At the end of each day’s session, we discussed the work with the students and helped them compile the data they had collected. The students reviewed their science notebooks and made notations and revisions as necessary.

Figure 4.

Dissected male California grunion, showing grunion eggs removed from its foregut.

Figure 4.

Dissected male California grunion, showing grunion eggs removed from its foregut.

Table 1.

Sample table of raw data for each collection site.

Collection Site:
Fish No.Mass of Fish (g)Total Length of Fish (mm)Sex of FishNumber of Eggs in the Foregut
    
    
    
    
Collection Site:
Fish No.Mass of Fish (g)Total Length of Fish (mm)Sex of FishNumber of Eggs in the Foregut
    
    
    
    

Data collected by the students provided new information on grunion biology and complemented other research being conducted by university scientists. The students counted the eggs in the foregut of 19 fish from Malibu Surf Rider Beach, 19 from Belmont Shore, and 20 from Long Beach Pier. Mass, total length, sex, and the number of eggs in the foregut were recorded for each fish (Table 2). The results supported the hypothesis, because grunion from all three sites contained grunion eggs in their foregut (average of 3–15 per site, but as many as 74 in one fish) and, thus, they do ingest their own eggs, a previously unknown behavior of this iconic California coastal fish. This apparent egg cannibalism has spurred scientific research into whether the fish can digest the eggs and gain nutrients from them. The students asked many questions during the discussion period that closed each day’s visit, and the sessions turned out to be enriching experiences for all involved.

Table 2.

Data summary for each collection site.

LocationAverage Mass of Fish (g)Average Total Length of Fish (mm)Ratio of Males to FemalesAverage Number of Eggs in the Foregut
Belmont Shore 21.3 155 16 Males 3 Females 
Malibu Surf Rider Beach 22.0 158 14 Males 5 Females 15 
Long Beach Pier 21.2 155 20 Males 0 Females 
LocationAverage Mass of Fish (g)Average Total Length of Fish (mm)Ratio of Males to FemalesAverage Number of Eggs in the Foregut
Belmont Shore 21.3 155 16 Males 3 Females 
Malibu Surf Rider Beach 22.0 158 14 Males 5 Females 15 
Long Beach Pier 21.2 155 20 Males 0 Females 

Assessment

Students were assessed during the project, with a focus on applying the scientific skills learned in the classroom, maintaining a science notebook, and respecting the personnel and facilities of the CSU Fullerton campus. In the lab, the students were assigned a peer partner to work with throughout the project. As in their school classroom, the students could seek assistance or clarification from their partner. The students were monitored during lab work and assessed for following directions during each campus visit. To safeguard against accidents or inappropriate behavior, we reviewed the expectations and learning objectives before each visit. The students seemed to embrace the fact that the data being collected by them made a real contribution to the university researchers’ work, which kept them engaged and attentive. Any student who needed to complete or improve notebook work was allowed time at school to make revisions before the next visit. The science notebooks were collected after each visit and reviewed to ensure that the students were meeting the criteria outlined at the start of each session. Moreover, collecting the science notebooks after each visit prevented the students from losing or forgetting them. Following the last campus visit, a final meeting at school provided time for the students to add photos to their science notebook and receive final assessment for the project.

Project Impact & Conclusions

Approximately 2.5 years after the completion of the grunion project, the students, as sophomores in high school, were asked to complete a 10-question Likert-scale (Likert, 1932) survey and to write any comments about their experience (Table 3). Three experienced educators (Luke Blacquiere – high school teacher; Dr. MerriLynn Casem – biology pedagogy professor; and Dr. Anna Gawlicka – clinical trials specialist) read and critiqued earlier versions of the survey. Of the 40 students who participated in the project, 29 completed the survey (Table 3). The mean of each response to the 10 scored questions was positive (>3.0, toward either agree or strongly agree), indicating generally favorable memories of the project. The highest mean values and smallest standard deviations (SD) derived from the survey were for question 2 (4.8 ± 0.4; enjoyed the grunion project) and question 10 (4.7 ± 0.5; would like to participate in a similar science experience), whereas the lowest mean value, and highest SD, was for question 5 (3.4 ± 1.1; the experience influenced choices of high school classes).

Table 3.

Likert-scale survey results of the follow-up survey, with the percentage response for each question and the number of students choosing each response in parentheses. All questions had 29 responses except question 5 (n = 27) and question 8 (n = 28).

Survey QuestionStrongly Disagree (Score = 1)Disagree (Score = 2)Neither Agree Nor Disagree (Score = 3)Agree (Score = 4)Strongly Agree (Score = 5)
1. I still remember many details about the project. 0% 7% (2) 21% (6) 55% (16) 17% (5) 
2. I enjoyed the project. 0% 0% 0% 76% (22) 24% (7) 
3. Through this project I understand why it is important for scientists to keep a notebook. 3% (1) 0% 0% 62% (18) 35% (10) 
4. This project increased my interest in science. 3% (1) 3% (1) 17% (5) 53% (15) 24% (7) 
5. This experience influenced my high school class choices. 7% (2) 11% (3) 26% (7) 41% (11) 15% (4) 
6. Working in the university lab enhanced my thoughts about going to college. 0% 0% 10% (3) 62% (18) 28% (8) 
7. My participation in this project made me consider studying science in college. 0% 7% (2) 21% (6) 55% (16) 17% (5) 
8. My participation in this project made me consider working in the science field. 4% (1) 0% 50% (14) 39% (11) 7% (2) 
9. Through this experience I have a better understanding of why scientists work with animals and the need to dissect animals is helpful and educational. 0% 0% 14% (4) 59% (17) 27% (8) 
10. If I had the opportunity to participate in a similar science experience I would. 0% 0% 0% 27% (8) 73% (21) 
Survey QuestionStrongly Disagree (Score = 1)Disagree (Score = 2)Neither Agree Nor Disagree (Score = 3)Agree (Score = 4)Strongly Agree (Score = 5)
1. I still remember many details about the project. 0% 7% (2) 21% (6) 55% (16) 17% (5) 
2. I enjoyed the project. 0% 0% 0% 76% (22) 24% (7) 
3. Through this project I understand why it is important for scientists to keep a notebook. 3% (1) 0% 0% 62% (18) 35% (10) 
4. This project increased my interest in science. 3% (1) 3% (1) 17% (5) 53% (15) 24% (7) 
5. This experience influenced my high school class choices. 7% (2) 11% (3) 26% (7) 41% (11) 15% (4) 
6. Working in the university lab enhanced my thoughts about going to college. 0% 0% 10% (3) 62% (18) 28% (8) 
7. My participation in this project made me consider studying science in college. 0% 7% (2) 21% (6) 55% (16) 17% (5) 
8. My participation in this project made me consider working in the science field. 4% (1) 0% 50% (14) 39% (11) 7% (2) 
9. Through this experience I have a better understanding of why scientists work with animals and the need to dissect animals is helpful and educational. 0% 0% 14% (4) 59% (17) 27% (8) 
10. If I had the opportunity to participate in a similar science experience I would. 0% 0% 0% 27% (8) 73% (21) 

Our key objective for this project was to have the students experience a college campus and engage in real-life, meaningful research. The survey showed that most (26 of 29, or 90%) agreed or strongly agreed that the project enhanced their thoughts of going to college (question 6). For us, this positive response may have been the single most important outcome of the project, given that our focus was to allow students of lower socioeconomic status and those coming from families with minimal college experience a means to become aware of higher-education possibilities.

We also were interested in which topics in science the students favored for studying in college and for a possible career. Twenty-one of the 29 students (72%) agreed or strongly agreed that the project made them consider studying science in college (question 7, 3.8 ± 0.8). The second part of question 7 asked the students to choose among five scientific disciplines they would most likely study in college; biology was checked most often (16 students), followed by astronomy (10), chemistry (9), physics (8), and geology (1). These results are not surprising, in part because the project was conducted in a biology laboratory, and also because they reflect the limited science choices offered by public education other than biology. For example, geology is not commonly taught in public junior high schools or high schools, but geological concepts are usually taught under the course title of Earth Science. The high ranking of astronomy in the survey was surprising but may be related to numerous large-scale popular movies about space travel and science fiction.

This project was worthwhile and successful on many levels. The junior high school teachers, graduate student, and university professor all found the experience to be enriching and satisfying. Planning and collaboration took many hours, but the federally funded GEAR UP Program at the university greatly aided in the communication and collaboration efforts among the university members and the junior high school teachers (http://webcert.fullerton.edu/gearup/contact_us.htm). On the basis of the follow-up survey and our own observations, we believe that our goal of providing an engaging and memorable learning and college experience for impressionable students was achieved. Several students commented that they felt a greater appreciation for their laboratory work, knowing that the data they gathered made a contribution to university research. One student wrote, “This experience convinced me to continue to do well in school and study science in college.” A majority of students expressed a higher interest in science because of their involvement in the project. Additional written comments on the survey form revealed that many of them better understand the importance of a carefully kept notebook, and the project caused others to think more about the importance of science. The experience of reconnecting with the students after 2.5 years was invigorating, as retrieved memories were shared along with some small talk about our personal lives. Even though such a project may require a large time investment and extra effort by public educators, we think that it is very worthwhile for schools to undertake collaborative efforts with nearby colleges to provide lasting educational experiences for their students.

Acknowledgments

We thank Manuel Colón, then principal at Sycamore Junior High School in Anaheim, California, for support and encouragement, and Dr. Steven Murray, then Dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Dr. Robert Koch, then Chair of the Department of Biological Science, both at CSU Fullerton, for allowing the use of university laboratories on three full mornings to carry out this project. Postbaccalaureate student Allison Santos provided assistance during the lab work. The GEAR UP Program at CSU Fullerton covered the costs of transporting the students by bus from the Sycamore Junior High to the campus and of purchasing supplies for the students. We appreciate the helpful comments of Luke Blacquiere, Dr. MerriLynn Casem, and Dr. Anna Gawlicka on drafts of the follow-up survey.

References

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