Ato Howard — Quinsigamond Community College
Christine Richardson — Morgan State University
Gage Light — Savannah State University
Ni’Matul-ain Muhammed — Morgan State University
The 2014 Trekkers chose to pursue a research project that attempted to define a coral reef health scale, entitled “The i-Trek Global Coral Health Survey”, that can be used by anyone to evaluate and log the health of coral reefs. While other scales require highly qualified users and equipment, only easily obtainable materials would be needed to evaluate health with this scale. To determine the health of coral using the Global Health Survey, a user would only need to collect water samples to be tested with pH meters and salinity meters and observe the coral and its surroundings. The total costs for materials is less that $20.
The data collection portion of the i-Trek pilot program took place during the first two weeks of June 2014. This portion of the program was meant to facilitate the bulk of the research project proposed by the undergraduate student participants, or Trekkers, and engage them in career development, community service and networking opportunities. To see what a Trek is about, check out the video below and read the day to day depiction of the Trek.
In order to adequately define the scale and test its effectiveness, the Trekkers needed to collect data on several coral reefs. This is easiest done while diving. Therefore, each Trekker participated in scuba certification classes that would take three to four days.
In conjunction with data collection and preparation, four volunteers facilitated career development sessions, networking sessions and a community outreach activity. These sessions began with a presentation of Grad Catalyst during the evening of the first scuba certification day. The Grad Catalyst is a presentation produced by MIT’s Office of the Dean of Graduate Education to educate underrepresented students on how to increase their chances of being admitted to top tier graduate programs.
The majority of the day consisted of continued scuba certification training. The next career developing session, held in the evening, involved the Trekkers participating in the first part of a professionalism course. The first part of this course focused on interview skills and conference call etiquette. After receiving a brief explanation of do’s and don’ts for interviews, each Trekker played the role of interviewer and interviewee in a round of mock interviews and graded each other on their etiquette, responses and body language. Afterwards, the Trekkers and 1 i-Trek volunteer went to different parts of the house and participated in a conference call to define research roles. Three of the them played the role of a different disruptive person while the leader of the call, who was one of the Trekkers, had to manage each person on the call while having a successful conference call.
Two of the four participants passed the scuba certification course and were awarded PADI certifications. After the Trekkers were certified, they started fine tuning their data collection plan and equipment. This included roles for each Trekker, building a plankton net to be use to collect samples on the surface and constructing a rig to hold an underwater camera.
The evening event involved a networking event consisting of a Skype call with a MIT graduate student in a field relevant to the research project. The Trekkers were able to ask relevant questions about their research project and graduate school in general.
As another Trekker earned his PADI certification, the Trekker’s research plan and equipment were tested with a preliminary dive at two different coral locations. The evening involved dinner with Winston Walters, a neurological researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine who also manages the lab. This event was very insightful because he shared information about his work and on how to pursue a career as a researcher.
Samples collected the previous day were evaluated at MarineLab in Key Largo, Florida and adjustments were made to the equipment and plan. For the evening career development session, each student was instructed to prepare an elevator pitch. Each Trekker had to deliver their pitch and was feedback was provided by the i-Trek volunteers.
To give back to the local community, the Trekkers participated in a community service activity. Trekkers spent the day restoring the habitat of the endangered Schaus Swallowtail butterfly on Adam’s island which is part of Biscayne National Park. This activity was organized by Mark Walters, the local Sierra Club Outings Chair of the Miami Group, in conjunction with the National Park Service. On the way home from this very hot day of physical labor, Mark led them to the famous Robert is Here Fruit Stand where they had smoothies and milkshakes and he introduced them to fruits they had never even heard of before. All agreed that the visit to this place was worth the hard work earlier.
After a full week of activities, the Trekkers were allowed a day to explore Miami on their own. Each Trekker did a different activity ranging from zoo visits to go kart racing.
Monday was spent finishing the professionalism course that was started on June 2nd. This part of the course focused on presentation skills, research skills, social media, and time management. The course involved creating effective presentations and other activities such as writing an abstract, preparing an e-calendar and developing career-friendly social media profiles. Some of these skills would prove useful to the Trekkers during their final presentations and when drafting the final research document.
The day was spent doing final tests at two different coral reef locations collecting research samples using some newly designed equipment. This showed promising results and helped define the questions and procedures that should be presented to users.
Samples collected the previous day were evaluated at MarineLab in order to affirm their predictions. The evening was another networking activity, a visit to Florida International University to attend a MIT alumni event. This event was a presentation of Aquarius, the only underwater research center in the world currently in operation. Researchers in Aquarius Skyped in to give a tour of the facility and describe life underwater. A recent MIT graduate, who would be living in the facility, also presented on the research she would be conducting. The event culminated with the Trekkers being able to network with professionals and entrepreneurs.
Trekkers were able to spend the day preparing a final research report and presentation that will be given the following day.
The last career development session was a judged presentation session. Each Trekker prepared a presentation that will be given at a minimum of two high schools. Their presentations were judged by STEM and non-STEM professionals. After being given feedback, the program ended with a Cuban dinner in Miami which was attended by Warren Marcus, a local MIT alumni bio research professional. This final networking opportunity officially ended the Trek.
Overall, the program proved to be full of learning opportunities. Each Trekker was able to gain new skills and improve on others. They left the program understanding how they can take initiative to find and create opportunities that will help them progress toward their research and professional goals.
Please find details about the 2015 Trek here: http://www.i-trek.org/2015-trekkers/