Grand County High School Students met at the edge of the Scott and Norma Matheson Wetlands Preserve on an overcast Tuesday afternoon in April, carpooling from the school campus and parking along the edges of a dirt lot. Their science teacher, Cara Grula, was waiting for them, along with staff from the Moab Mosquito Abatement District and Carrie Schwartz, the School to Science program director for local nonprofit Science Moab. 

The kids were there to check on mosquito traps placed throughout a section of the preserve. They first set up the traps in mid-March, and throughout the spring they’ve returned to monitor and maintain the sites every week as part of their Natural Resources science class. The data they collect is valuable to the Mosquito Abatement District, which tracks and manages mosquito populations in town. The partnership is a new manifestation of School to Science, a program designed to expose students to real-world science careers. So far the program has facilitated job shadows, mentorships and internships for individual students. This spring was the first class-wide, field trip format of the program. 

“The kids really seem to love it!” Grula said. Her Natural Resources course is an elective class in the high school’s Career and Technical Education department. 

“Students who don’t want to take chemistry or physics, they can take a class like natural resources, robotics, or plant and soil science,” Grula explained. Earlier in the year, she taught her students concepts in ecology, natural resource management, natural resource conflicts, GIS, waste management, and natural resource careers. Helping the Mosquito Abatement District with monitoring is a trimester-long project to follow up on the classroom learning. At the end of the trimester, in mid-May, students will give presentations as small groups on the work they conducted. Their audience will include Linda Whitham, director of the wetlands preserve. 

“I think this is a fantastic opportunity for students to get out in nature, do some relevant science work and learn lessons in the field,” Whitham said. 

Students stopped at a pile of supplies to pick up brick-sized batteries that power the small fan element of the mosquito traps, which are provided by the Mosquito Abatement District, as well as small bottles to collect water samples. Then they climbed over the wooden stile into the preserve, broke into small groups and scattered to their sites. At the traps they removed and replaced the small mesh bag where bugs had been trapped, and replaced the batteries. 

The students say the project has been fun so far. 

“They have us do hands-on things,” said student Aliana Lazaro, as she checked and reassembled the trap. They also said they enjoyed the independence of getting off campus. 

After they’d reset the traps that target adult mosquitoes, the students also refreshed their “ovitraps,” which are designed to attract mosquitoes to lay their eggs on a substrate. The ovitraps are plastic cups attached to trees or brush and filled with water and a popsicle stick. It’s an ideal place for certain types of mosquitoes to lay eggs, as long as it stays wet. The kids added more water to the dried-out cups. 

The same three students assemble the trap, this time the funnel component of the cap is taken off. One of the students looks very confused.
Credit: Rachel Fixsen/Moab Sun News

Schwartz said this iteration of the School to Science program came about when Grula approached Science Moab with the idea of a scientist mentor for her whole class. Mosquito Abatement District Director Michele Rehbein was already on Schwartz’s list of scientists who were interested in serving as a mentor for the School to Science program. Schwartz connected Grula and Rehbein and they worked out a field schedule. 

“Michele’s been incredible about really selecting tasks that can be done in a relatively quick period of time,” Schwartz said. The students usually have just one class period—about an hour—to get to the field site and check their traps. 

“At first they were a little nervous to do something so different than in-class work or one-time field trips,” Grula said. “I have watched them become excited for Tuesday field trips and start asking if we can go more often. They seem to really love getting outside and participating in meaningful science for the community.”

Rehbein added that the information students collect is important to the district, which tracks how many mosquitoes are getting trapped to get an idea of mosquito populations in the wetlands. Sometimes district staff bring the trapped insects back to the lab to identify the species. District staff might also bring any eggs from the ovitraps to the lab and allow the eggs to mature inside an “emergence chamber,” where their species can then be identified when they’re adults (it’s difficult to identify most mosquito species by their eggs).  

It’s important to know what species of mosquito are proliferating because some carry viruses, like West Nile or Zika, that can be dangerous to humans. If enough adult mosquitos are captured in a trap, they can be analyzed in a machine at the lab to detect if any viruses are present. 

District staff also analyze water samples the students collect, testing things like pH in water collected from different areas: ponds in the wetlands, calm spots of the river, and a fish channel designed to create a pathway for native fish to reach a nursery. The water quality can affect how fast mosquito eggs mature.

After the traps were reset and water samples collected—with only one student slipping ankle-deep into the mud on the river bank—the students returned to the parking area. Grula prompted the class to ask any questions they might have before returning to school for their last period. Students perched on the wooden fence at the wetlands boundary and asked Rehbein things like, “How many mosquito species are there in the world?” (Over 3500, Rehbein replied.) And, “Why do the Aedes aegypti species like to bite people’s ankles?” (They probably adapted to that behavior because it’s an often exposed area that’s inconvenient for people to swat.) And more abstract questions, like “Did we domesticate Aedes aegypti, or did they domesticate us?” (Rehbein made the case that humans inadvertently domesticated the mosquito species, which has adapted to breed and thrive indoors.) 

Being off campus and working with professionals outside of school seems to spark engagement in students, Grula observed. 

“My favorite moment has been watching a few students who are usually apathetic about school get really into this project,” she said. “Some of those students are the first ones to want to take the water quality data, or run ahead to see what they caught in their traps.” 

While no firm plans are in place, Grula said she would love to work with the Mosquito Abatement District again next spring, or possibly work out a similar partnership with another natural resource scientist in the community. 

Schwartz, too, hopes other teachers will consider this model of School to Science. 

“We would love to be able to approach educators and let them know this is an option, and help provide them a pathway to empower them to offer something like this to their classes,” Schwartz said. 

She’s excited to see the early success of the School to Science program, and to see it grow. At the end of this school year, about 25 kids will have participated in the program, and there are about 50 students who have signed up on a list expressing interest in participating. Almost 25 scientists have expressed interest in participating as well. Science Moab surveys students after they’ve completed their internships, mentorships, or job shadows to find out how it went for them, what they got out of it, and ways the program could be improved. 

While the data set is still small, Schwartz is seeing positive results from those surveys so far. 

“Since the program started in August of last year, 100% of students that have completed an internship or job shadow with the program have reported increases in scientific knowledge and in either college or career readiness,” she said. “It’s really promising.”