Giving students an opportunity to undertake field work, learn about data collection and analysis, as well as work and live as part of a team of diverse individuals is a unique experience that can influence and shape future careers and lives. As such, engagement of young science enthusiasts has always been a goal of the gray whale foraging ecology project (TOPAZ), which is why the field season team always comprises 2-3 undergraduate and/or local high school students.
Over the course of this internship, all students learn how to track whales with binoculars, a theodolite, and the associated computer program Pythagoras, as well as proper camera techniques for taking photo-ID quality images. They also learn how to kayak, how to navigate between stations with a GPS, and how to complete zooplankton net tows and GoPro casts from the research kayak. Additionally, the interns gain experience with science communication in both formal and informal settings through frequent on-the-water interactions with other kayakers, and a community presentation at the end of the field season. Each intern is also required to write a blog post for the GEMM Lab blog on the topic of their choosing, which is always a learning experience and yields interesting personal flare. This internship gives students a chance to interact with scientists, as well as a taste for the realities of field research. Whether or not students continue STEM career paths, the experience broadens their horizons and skill sets, and helps engage the Port Orford community in local marine research.
So far, 22 students in total have participated in this research program: six were high school students (four from Port Orford's Pacific High School and two from Astoria High School), 14 undergraduates (11 from OSU and one from Lawrence University, and two graduate dtudents (one from Duke University and one from Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium). As of 2020, three of our high school interns have started undergraduate degrees at college. One plans to major in Marine Studies (in part as a result of participating in this internship), while another decided to go to college to study Biology because of this internship. Several of the undergraduate students that participated in the 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018 field seasons pursued Master’s degrees at graduate schools around the country (3 of which have already graduated from their programs). A 2015 intern now teaches middle school in Washington, and a 2016 intern is working with Oceans Initiative on their southern resident killer whale project.The project also encourages participating interns to develop a small, independent research projects to investigate. This effort has resulted in several interns presenting posters about their work and findings at the State of the Coast Conference, which is held annually in Oregon.
Providing high school and undergraduate students with an opportunity to experience ecological field research and learn valuable skills in data collection, processing and analysis has always been a central part of the TOPAZ Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project.