Undergraduate students get a close up look at the critters of Presque Isle State Park

The week flew by but the insects they were studying stayed put for four biology majors as they spent part of their winter break learning new skills and working side-by-side with experts in the Tom Ridge Environmental Center’s (TREC) Natural History Museum.

The four students, biology and ecology majors from different colleges, were selected from a pool of 27 applicants. Their paid, week-long hands-on intensive introduction to taxonomy and collection methods gave them a chance to work with volunteer museum staff and other experts in the fields of botany, herpetology, ichthyology and entomology. The Great Lakes COSEE (Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence) and Pennsylvania Sea Grant provided this opportunity through the O’LAKERS program. O’LAKERS is an acronym for Ocean and Lake Aware Kids Engaged in Relevant Science. This special undergraduate opportunity allowed these students to learn about scientific collections and their value for teaching and research.

Ed Masteller, emeritus professor of biology, Penn State Behrend, serves as head curator for the Natural History Museum. He organized this hands-on undergraduate experience that identified, labeled and properly stored the insects, plants, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that call the TREC Natural History Museum ‘home.’ Students learned the value of collections such as these, both as a teaching tool and a record of what exists in an area at a particular point in time. They learned how freeze drying specimens preserve their natural colors, unlike specimens preserved in alcohol. They learned the importance of taking good field notes and how GPS (Global Positioning System) technology can be used when collecting specimens.

But the students were not the only ones who benefited from the experience. Masteller was thrilled with the work the students did to add to the database and assure its accuracy. Students entered a large amount of data and then re-organized the data into lists showing the species by county and those more specific to Presque Isle.

"This project, funded by COSEE, was worth the investment. The students learned proper methods for collecting and storing specimens and they helped us pull together the information that will help scientists and educators utilize this valuable collection," said Masteller.

"Dr. Masteller's genuine interest in insects and his desire to share his knowledge was contagious," said Paul Crawford, junior at Penn State Behrend. "Before, I overlooked the tedious but necessary work that goes into creating and maintaining a collection. But now I realize an insect I helped record in the database could be used as a voucher specimen one hundred years down the road and might offer insight into the habitat of Presque Isle today."

Breanna Griffith, a sophomore at Clarion University, now plans to take both of the entomology courses available at her school. She can't wait to get into the field and show people how great her notes will be. “We learned more in forty hours than others learn in years of classes” says Breanna.

COSEE links researchers with teachers, students, and the general public in an effort to promote freshwater and marine literacy. More information on this NSF and NOAA funded project can be found at coseegreatlakes.net.