Thacher Students Test the Waters in Turtle Conservation Chemistry

"Tackling real-world problems gives us a deeper understanding of the concepts we are learning in the classroom."
Every other week, Thacher Advanced Chemistry students can be found collecting water from ponds at the Turtle Conservancy (TC), a conservation organization working to protect tortoises and freshwater turtles worldwide. A new partnership between Thacher and the TC has proven to be beneficial to both groups. Chemistry teacher, Tommy Hattori, was able to design a project-based, applied-chemistry course based on students’ interests, in a non-traditional learning space, working for the greater good; and the Turtle Conservancy turned over a key project to Thacher students, freeing up their staff for other responsibilities. “The water quality  work is so helpful to us—as a small non-profit, we don’t always have the resources to cover these important projects,” said Kelly Herbinson, conservation programs and development coordinator for the conservancy.

The TC’s Ojai facility houses dozens of species of turtles and tortoises, so the chemistry students are taking samples from six or seven ponds weekly. Back in the classroom, they perform tests on the samples and record the results. The staff compares recent tests to optimal environmental targets and makes the necessary adjustments. 

Early results
Already, the class’s work if having a positive impact. The Galapagos tortoise is a land-based species, so you might not think that water quality is important to them. But sub-optimal conditions in their drinking water can affect their health. While testing their drinking water pond, the students discovered elevated nitrate and phosphate and low oxygen levels, which they realized was caused by a lack of circulation in the pond. Following the students’ recommendations, the staff installed a water circulation system, and the tests the following week showed significant improvements. Herbinson said that these types of fine scale adjustments should help the overall health of the animals.

Students value this opportunity to solve immediate problems with their coursework. Karina ’21 noted, “Tackling real-world problems gives us a deeper understanding of the concepts we are learning in the classroom and helps bridge the gap between knowledge and application. This will help us in our future when we will be required to not only have knowledge, but real-world skills to handle problems in our careers.”

Many opportunities for broader collaboration between Thacher and the TC are possible.The TC staff and Thacher faculty are looking for ways to include other academic areas in the collaboration. For instance, Herbinson said that they hope to invite advanced writing classes to investigate ways to “communicate highly technical information to the public.” This is one of only 20-or-so projects that they are considering, including student travels to conservation sites maintained by the conservancy on native turtle and tortoise habitats across the globe, to gain hands-on applied experience.

An elective entitled Citizen Scienceis another current collaboration between the Thacher Science Department and the Turtle Conservancy. Look for more information on that class soon.

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