SAFS and SOO Open House Image of Kids

Exploring Our Watery World at UW’s Aquatic Science Open House

On May 4th, the University of Washington held its second annual Aquatic Science Open House, inviting Seattle-area families, students, and teachers to explore the institution’s marine and freshwater science programs. The event was organized by the Students Explore Aquatic Sciences (SEAS) outreach group based in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS) and the Academic and Recreational Graduate Oceanographers (ARGO) outreach group based in the School of Oceanography.

Now in its second year, the open house has grown to include both the School of Oceanography and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, as well as other scientists across the UW and from organizations outside of the university, explains Alex Lincoln, a UW graduate student at SAFS and one of the event’s organizers. “The scope and diversity of science represented continues to grow, which has been exciting for all involved,” she said.

Additional local science and outreach organizations invited to participate in this year’s event included NOAA Alaska Fishery Science Center, NOAA Northwest Fishery Science Center, Mathematics Engineering and Science Achievement program Seattle, and Northwest Hydraulics Consultants.

“What we really want to show to families and to the broader public is that while SAFS and Oceanography are working on many projects at the local level, we are also focused on understanding ocean and freshwater ecosystems on a global scale,” said Brendan Phillip, a UW graduate student at the School of Oceanography. It’s a great chance for people to see how their local knowledge connects to larger environmental forces.”

Over 530 guests attended throughout the afternoon where they participated in exhibits and games across both the Ocean Sciences and Fisheries Science Buildings. Visitors were also able to sign up for guided tours of the docked research vessel Rachel Carson and the expansive UW Fish Collection (part of the Burke Museum), the largest of its kind in North America.

Walking between the two buildings along NE Boat Street guests also caught a glimpse of Seattle’s Opening Day boat parade in Portage Bay which marks the official first day of the boating season.

Inside, creative displays built and designed by students, post-docs, staff, and faculty volunteers helped translate some of the schools’ complex research into approachable lessons and activities for people of all ages. Visitors learned from and spoke with scientists at 31 different stations and labs where topics ranged from narwhal feeding and migration behaviors (where children could attach their own narwhal “horn” atop their heads), coral bleaching demonstrations, underwater robotics and glider fabrication, and using colored dyes to reveal how ocean currents form. The imaginativeness of stations and the enthusiasm from all of the volunteers cultivated a festival-like atmosphere where there was something new for guests to see around every corner.

“The energy was absolutely contagious! By being surrounded by a group of willing learners, parents and children alike, and exceptional scientists you couldn’t help but to feel excited.” said one volunteer. “My absolute favorite moment was when a kid came to play our how many fish in the sea game and when he went to start fishing he said, ‘I can’t catch them all though, I learned that upstairs!’”

University faculty were also eager for the opportunity to open their labs and present their research to new kinds of audiences.

“Opening our doors to the public is one of many ways that SAFS faculty and students share our research with the world,” said Julian Olden a faculty member at SAFS.

He is hopeful that visitors walked away learning something new, but in turn apply that knowledge in their lives. Olden’s lab’s booth focused on the challenges associated with invasive species and the damage they can cause to native ecosystems. “We talked to the public about the hazards of intentionally releasing aquarium plants and animals and how to better dispose of these critters,” he said. Onlookers were even encouraged to (carefully) hold a live red swamp crayfish, one of Washington state’s most aggressive invaders.

Julian Olden discussing the invasive red swamp crayfish with guests.

The SEAS and ARGO outreach groups want to continue to foster curiosity in STEM with K-12 students in the greater Seattle area and use opportunities like the open house to develop ongoing relationships with local schools.

“Exposing children to science allows them to meet different scientists working on a broad range of areas. It expands their vision to include environmental science, and connects them to local issues that they might hear on the news,” said Isadora Jimenez a SAFS research scientist and the coordinator and founder of SEAS.

The outreach groups also want to impress upon children importance of diversity in these different fields and that anyone can become a scientist.

“For older students, the interactions with scientists makes them learn more about science as a career option and see scientists as real people­–see themselves as scientists,” she said. “They might discover that science is for anyone and everyone, and that they just need to find the right track to fulfill their curiosity.”

Oceanography graduate student Jake Steinberg illustrating how currents and eddies form in the ocean.

In future years the organizers would like to see the open house expand further by incorporating students and researchers from other UW campuses as well as extend invitations to additional agencies and local tribes. The aim is to continue to inspire guests to explore their curiosity in the STEM fields and for UW student, staff, and faculty volunteers to embrace science communication and public engagement.

“It made me feel very proud to be part of this research community, and also that what we do is connected to our broader community. Out of all the outreach opportunities I’ve had, this was my favorite, said one volunteer researcher. “In academia, my work is usually limited to my own lab, but at the open house, it felt like all the labs were working together towards a common goal. I figured the open house would be great, but it vastly exceeded my expectations.”

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