U-CARE: Undergraduate Coral Aquarium Research Experience
Matthew L. Partin, Bowling Green State University-Main Campus
After completing their gateway biology courses (sophomore or junior year) marine biology students at BGSU enroll in a required Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) called BIOL 3700: Introduction to Inland Marine Research. This course teaches advanced aquarium husbandry, along with aquarium sciences, and aquarium research methods. Other skills taught in the class include scientific design, data collection, and analysis.
The class theme is reef ecology and conservation and a large portion of the course is dedicated to conducting research with coral fragments housed in the BGSU Marine Lab. Students work in small groups to answer questions concerning the morphology and growth rates of a variety of coral species based on variables such as water flow (pattern or intensity), light (cycle, color, or intensity), or diet (food type, frequency, or amount). Results are uploaded to a public database to address the long-term goal of predictably inducing corals to spawn in aquaria. Data are shared publically with interested stakeholders.
All students in the CURE course are assigned a peer research Learning Assistant (rLA) to serve as a mentor. rLAs are undergraduates who have previously performed well in the course and have advanced knowledge of the Marine Lab, coral husbandry, and the research process. Each rLA oversees a group of 5 students. Students meet with the rLAs and instructor weekly. The instructor meets with the rLAs for weekly husbandry and pedagogy training, as well as discussing progress and needs in the CURE research projects.
- Practice aquarium/coral husbandry skills, hypothesis development, collaboration, data collection, and data analysis.
- Articulate the project's importance and effectively communicate the results of the study.
- Gain self-efficacy for research & Identify as scientists. Gain metacognitive knowledge and self-regulation.
- Determine ideal light, flow, and/or food parameters for various species of coral.
- Induce corals to predictably spawn in aquaria (long-term goal).
BGSU is a regional, comprehensive research university. There are 16,500 students on the main campus coming from all 50 states and 70 countries, with 88% coming from Ohio. Twenty percent of the entering class are underrepresented ethnic and racial minorities. Ninety percent of all entering freshmen receive some financial aid. Thirty percent of students are the first generation to attend college. The average ACT for entering freshman is 23; the average high school GPA is 3.42. There are 900 full-time faculty (nearly 80 percent with the highest degree in their field). Overall student to faculty ratio is 18:1.
There are 36 faculty in the Biology Department and approximately 85% of the faculty have active research programs. Currently, there are 215 students enrolled in the Specialization in Marine and Aquatic Biology with a 73% 1-year retention rate and a 41% 6-year graduation rate. The program has grown over 1000% (20 to 215 students) over the past 20 years since Dr. Partin was employed as the Marine Lab Curator and the program has experienced some growing pains. The graduation rate is believed to be low due to a shortage of mentors and meaningful research experiences. In response, this CURE course was designed to retain students in the program through mentoring, enhance their self-efficacy, promote student metacognition, research skills, and increase students identity as a scientist.
BGSU MARINE LAB
Established in 1963, the BGSU Marine Laboratory is a 1500 sq. ft. facility that contains over 4,000 gallons of seawater in over 60 aquaria. Some of the larger systems include a 500-gallon touch tank, a 1000-gallon shark system, three large coral research systems totaling 1300 gallons, and several smaller coral research systems. In the lab, eight major phyla are represented in over 66 genera of marine life including sea anemones, corals, starfish, sea urchins, snails, crabs, octopus, and algae as well as a wide variety of freshwater and marine fish.
Undergraduate research and outreach are large parts of the marine biology program at BGSU. The animals in the lab are maintained by students for class study and research projects but are also present for the appreciation of 2000 visitors each year. The Marine Lab is free to visit, open to the public, and hosts local school groups every Thursday morning during the academic year. There is space designated within the lab for students to study and socialize producing a robust sense of community. Dr. Partin oversees this facility.
Established in 2020, the Marine Lab Annex is a 1450 sq. ft. facility dedicated to fresh and saltwater aquatic research for undergraduates. The Annex was built in response to BGSU's strong support of undergraduate research and the prodigious growth of the Marine Biology program. It is strictly for undergraduates and not open to the public.
Target Audience:Major, Upper Division
CURE Duration:A full term
Students conduct research on coral fragments housed in the BGSU Marine Lab. Propagating and rearing corals in captivity has tremendous significance in both the biomedical and conservation biology realms. Metabolites isolated from some soft corals display antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and cytotoxic properties. Also, the structure and chemical composition of stony coral is similar to bone, making it suitable for bone grafting, and avoiding some of the problems accompanying the use of other materials . On the conservation side, aquaculture of coral offers an alternative to wild harvest for the ornamental trade and shows considerable promise for restoring reefs and preserving biodiversity .
Students work in groups to answer questions concerning the morphology and growth rates of a variety of coral species based on variables such as water flow (pattern or intensity), light (cycle, color, or intensity), or diet (food type, frequency, or amount). The technology and knowledge required to keep corals thriving in captivity are fairly new. As a result, there is very little literature describing these types of projects, making them novel and authentic research experiences with genuine applications in the biological sciences. The BGSU marine biology program focuses on aquarium sciences.
Students do a literature search, develop hypotheses, design research methods, and collect data. The instructor assists them with statistics and data interpretation. Students also maintain the aquariums housing the coral animals with oversight by trained Learning Assistants. By the end of the course, students produce a research paper with peer review and instructor feedback. They also give a final presentation. Student data are quality controlled by the instructor and uploaded onto an open-source, stakeholder-relevant database. Students are also encouraged to present their projects in the Annual BGSU Undergraduate Research Symposium.
Predictable and planned coral spawning in aquariums is extremely difficult and very few people can actually do this . Also, many stakeholders may be interested in growing corals as fast or as colorful as possible. Data are collected on various species to help stakeholders "dial in" the ideal light, flow, and feeding parameters for growing various coral species. Data are publicly shared via a web page. Stakeholders include public and private zoos, aquariums, museums, K-12 schools, universities, aquaculture facilities, and coral farms. Many private businesses that maintain, propagate, and/or sell live coral or coral maintenance/propagation equipment may be interested as well. Hobbyists are another group of legitimate stakeholders who may be interested in this data.
Coral size and lunar light (intensity, color, timing, etc.) are factors in coral spawning that will be addressed by the Marine Lab at a later date. Perhaps other stakeholders will help provide this information.
Core Competencies: Analyzing and interpreting data, Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering), Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering), Planning and carrying out investigations
Nature of Research: Applied Research, Basic Research
Tasks that Align Student and Research Goals
Student Goals ↓
1. Students read and discuss several journal articles to identify the "gaps in the knowledge" in ex-situ coral research & spawning.
2.Students generate hypotheses and predictions based on their readings & discussions.
3. Students work in small groups to maintain coral, collect data, and interpret data.
1. Students read and discuss several journal articles to identify the "gaps in the knowledge" in ex-situ coral research & spawning.
2. Students explain how their research study will contribute to the Marine Lab's long-term goal of ex-situ coral spawning. This information is included in the "Introduction" section of the students' research papers.
1. Students produce a research paper, poster, and presentation. Students will present experimental methodology, results, and interpretation of data.
1. Students contribute data to an open-source, stakeholder-relevant database.
1. Students are mentored by undergraduate research Learning Assistants and the instructor.
2. Students are given some autonomy in their research design.
3. Students are treated as professionals by the instructor and Learning Assistants and expected to act accordingly.
4. Students are provided metacognitive prompts to aid in their research design, implementation, and interpretation.
1. Students contribute to a much larger goal than just one project for a grade in a class. Students help answer "real" questions being asked by "real" scientists. Their data have legitimate real-world value.
1. Student Data Entry Form- View an example of the student data entry form...
2. Course Syllabus- Here is an example of the course syllabus used in BIOL3700. A calendar of activities is listed at the end that may help you with your timing...
Course Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 4.5MB Jun28 21)
3. Aquarium Log- Here is an example of an aquarium log students use to keep track of their aquarium husbandry practices... Students enter a line on their log each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Reef Aquarium Checksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Jun28 21)
1. Tank Checks- "Tank Checks" are unannounced aquarium inspections given by the instructor 4-6 times each semester. This ensures that students regularly maintain their aquaria. LAs help the students maintain these complex systems.
Tank Checks (Microsoft Word 23kB Jun28 21)
2. Final Paper Rubric- This is used by the instructor to grade students' final presentations.
Final Paper Rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 64kB Jun28 21)
3. Final Presentation Rubric- This is used by the instructor to grade students' final group presentations.
Final Presentation Rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 59kB Jun28 21)
All students in the CURE course are assigned a peer Research Learning Assistant (rLA) to serve as a mentor. rLAs are undergraduates who have previously performed well in the course and have advanced knowledge of the Marine Lab. Each rLA works with a group of five students. Students meet with the rLAs and Dr. Partin weekly.
rLAs meet with the instructor weekly for husbandry and pedagogy training. The rLAs coordinate and facilitate all aspects of the Marine Lab including day-to-day operations overseeing CURE students and their research projects. They also assist the instructor with Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) compliance. The rLAs communicate the needs of undergraduate researchers to the instructor, protect the integrity of the research projects, and ensure projects are completed in a timely fashion. The rLAs meet each undergraduate researcher under their supervision for at least one hour every week. The rLAs must have all the current and proper training to maintain the Marine Lab including safe chemical handling training, and MS-222 and euthanasia training.
Matthew L. Partin, Bowling Green State University-Main Campus
Dr. Matthew L. Partin has been faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences and The Marine Lab Curator since 1999. He has over 30 years of professional experience keeping and propagating corals in captivity. He developed this CURE course to ensure the marine biology students at BGSU graduate with the skills, persistence, and self-efficacy to become successful scientists and life-long learners.
Advice for Implementation
I recommend including a final paper that includes all of the sections normally included in a peer-reviewed research paper (Abstract, Introduction, Methods, etc.). If your student's projects fail for any reason and the students don't have any usable data by the end of the semester, it can be turned into a "Proposal" instead of a "Journal Article". You can use the same rubric, but don't use the Results & Discussion sections or you may have them explain their "expected results" if the project was completed. Keep the focus on inquiry and discovery. Make sure students understand that a "failed" project is not necessarily a bad thing and it doesn't equal a "failed" grade.
Whether your students produce a "Journal Article" or a "Proposal", include a group presentation (PowerPoint or Poster). Students really enjoy this and it can be a celebration of their accomplishments. Make it constructive and encourage other students in the class to ask questions and make suggestions for improvement. This should be fun and engaging and it is likely one of the few assignments that make it into their long-term memory.
For each step of the paper writing process, have students turn in rough drafts to be graded by the instructor and reviewed by their peers. I use Canvas Learning Management System to coordinate this. For example, students turn in their Introduction to be graded and Peer Reviewed by 4 other randomly selected students in the class. The peer reviews and my comments will be due the following week. The students comment directly on their peer's papers and then "cut & paste" their comments into a MS Word document to submit to me. I read the comments submitted to me and assign a grade to the Peer Reviews. I found this to be the easiest way for me to manage this.
The Peer Review component seems to significantly raise the quality of the student papers. I believe this may be due to students being more concerned about what their peers think of them as opposed to what I think if just I am reading their paper alone. They seem to submit less jibberish. Instead, they seem to write more than they normally would and with better spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Furthermore, each semester I am astonished by the level of maturity and insightful comments they provide for each other. They just seem to take the assignment more seriously and seem to enjoy it more as they all help each other explore their topics.
I recommend having students write a section every other week in order (Introduction first, Methods second, Results thirds, etc.). The Abstract can be saved for the very end. It is tempting to have them write the Methods first, but they seem to not really understand what they are doing or why until after they write the Introduction.
Writing the paper helps students learn about their topic. The presentation is the ultimate summative assessment because their instructor and their peers will be asking questions. Therefore, I recommend using both in your course.
It is highly recommended that any faculty intending to run this CURE has experience maintaining and propagating corals over a long period of time. The proper equipment is also needed. We primarily use two large aquarium systems for this CURE class modeled loosely after the system described by Jamie Craggs, curator of the Horniman Museum and Gardens Aquarium .
At the beginning of the semester, each group of students will focus on one species of coral (depending on availability). They select large corals from a Grow Out / Spawning Tank, propagate them into small 1" fragments, attach them to ceramic "frag plugs", and acclimate them into a Research System. Variables (e.g. light, flow, etc.) may now be adjusted in the Research System to compare 2 or more groups under the different conditions. Students weigh the corals weekly over the course of the semester to assess growth. Near the end of the semester, the data are analyzed via statistics.
GROW OUT & SPAWNING TANK
This tank is 340 gallons (192''x 20 x 20.5") with a 50-gallon sump. The tank is circulated 10x per hour. Four Apex WAV powerheads create additional circulation at 100% power. The lights are Radion xr30 G4 Pros by Eco Tech Marine using the AB+ light color preset. The light cycle is set at 9 hours light and 15 hours dark with a 1-hour ramp on and off to create a dusk and dawn effect. The lunar cycle is the default setting (the lights adjust their nighttime intensity to match the brightness of the moon in the northern hemisphere). The tank contains 300 lbs of "live rock" for biological filtration and houses herbivores such as snails, hermit crabs, rabbitfish, and tangs.
The sump houses 4 blocks of MarinePure Block Bio-Filter Media by CerMedia for biological filtration. It also contains 2 heaters and the return pump. The sump also contains a basketball-sized colony of the macroalgae Chaetomorpha linum to uptake phosphates and nitrates and to outcompete nuisance algae. A plant grow-light hangs over the sump. The sump is automatically topped off by a Neptune ATK system. A chiller and media reactor containing activated carbon and granular ferric oxide are plumbed into the return system. Calcium and sodium bicarbonate are automatically dosed via Bulk Reef Supply dosing pumps. Magnesium and all other trace elements are dosed manually. A Neptune Trident automatically tests levels of alkalinity (2x/day), calcium (1x/day), and magnesium (1x/day). All other trace elements are tested manually and dosed as needed. The entire system is controlled by a Neptune Apex Controller with probes continually testing salinity, temperature, pH, and ORP (oxidation-reduction potential).
This system is very similar to the Grow Out / Spawning Tank, but it is broken into smaller subsections where light and flow may be easily controlled and measured. It is made up of 5 aquaria totaling 300 gallons with a 55-gallon sump. Three aquaria are 50 Gallon Low Boy™ Frag Tanks by ZooMed (48″ x 24″ x 10″), while the other two are standard 75-gallon tanks (48" x 18" x 21").
The tanks are circulated 10x per hour. One Apex WAV powerhead creates additional circulation at variable power in each tank. The lights are Radion xr15 G5 Pros by Eco Tech Marine using the AB+ light color preset (2 lights/tank). The light cycle is set at 9 hours light and 15 hours dark with a 1 our ramp on and off to create a dusk and dawn effect. The lunar cycle is the default setting (the lights adjust their nighttime intensity to match the brightness of the moon in the northern hemisphere). The tank contains 300 lbs of "live rock" for biological filtration and houses herbivores such as snails, hermit crabs, rabbitfish, and tangs.
The sump houses 2 blocks of MarinePure Block Bio-Filter Media by CerMedia for biological filtration. It also contains 2 heaters and the return pump. The sump also contains a basketball-sized colony of the macroalgae Chaetomorpha linum to uptake phosphates and nitrates and to outcompete nuisance algae. A plant grow-light hangs over the sump. The sump is automatically topped off by a Neptune ATK system. A chiller and media reactor containing activated carbon and granular ferric oxide are plumbed into the return system. Calcium and sodium bicarbonate are automatically dosed via Bulk Reef Supply dosing pumps. Magnesium and all other trace elements are dosed manually. A Neptune Trident automatically tests levels of alkalinity (2x/day), calcium (1x/day), and magnesium (1x/day). All other trace elements are tested manually and dosed as needed. The entire system is controlled by a Neptune Apex Controller with probes continually testing salinity, temperature, pH, and ORP (oxidation-reduction potential).
WATER QUALITY PARAMETERS
All coral systems in the Marine Lab are maintained with the following water quality parameters:
Ca = 380-450ppm Alk = 2.5-4 meq/L; 7-11dKH; 125-200 ppm CaCO3 equivalents Salinity = 35ppt or 1.026 sg Temp = 76-83 F pH = 8.1-8.3 Mg = 1250-1350 ppm PO4 < 0.03 ppm NH3 < 0.1 ppm Silica < 2 ppm Iodine = Control not recommended Nitrate < 0.2 ppm Nitrite < 0.2 ppm Strontium = 5-15 ppm ORP = Control not recommended Boron < 10ppm Iron = Below kit detection limits (additions OK)
OCEAN VALUES (for comparison)
Ca = 420 ppm Alk = 2.5 meq/L; 7 dKH; 125 ppm CaCO3 equivalents Salinity = 34-36 ppt or 1.025-1.027 sg Temp = variable pH = 8.0-8.3 Mg = 1280 ppm PO4 = 0.005 ppm NH3 < 0.1 ppm (typically) Silica < 0.06-2.7 ppm Iodine = 0.06 (total all forms) Nitrate < 0.1ppm (typically) Nitrite < 0.0001 ppm (typically) Strontium = 8 ppm ORP = variable Boron = 4.4ppm Iron = .000006 ppm
Providing large numbers of students with research experiences that last more than one semester is extremely difficult. Within a single course, it is important that the instructor is organized before the semester begins and data collection begins as soon as possible. The more time you can provide students to troubleshoot and collect data the better. It is also important that students have lots of practice using data collecting techniques. Because we have a marine lab dedicated to this class, I have been able to extend the CURE course over multiple semesters using the two courses described below.
BIOL 4520- AQUARIUM HUSBANDRY
Most marine biology students at BGSU continue to work in the Marine Lab each semester after the CURE class and receive 1-credit hour to help maintain the lab (e.g. feed the animals, fill the water vats, mix saltwater, clean the water quality assessment station, maintain the bleach sanitation station, etc.). They are only required to do this one semester but most continue through graduation and take great pride and ownership in the lab. They are also encouraged to continue or duplicate their research projects. While in this class, they continue to meet with the instructor and rLAs weekly.
BIOL 4540- BIOLOGY LAB TOURS
Seniors are required to participate in a 1-credit hour capstone service-learning outreach course called Biology Lab Tours (BIOL 4540). In this course, students present biology concepts including the importance of reef ecology, the effects of climate change on reefs, and the results of their research to K-16 students and the public. One school visits the BGSU Marine Lab each week during the academic year and they typically range from upper elementary school to college. Students are also required to present their findings at the annual BGSU Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS) and encouraged to seek other research experiences at BGSU and elsewhere. The students are also introduced to a new LA mentor referred to as the "Outreach Learning Assistant" (oLA). The Instructor and the oLA help prepare the students for presenting their research results and related biological concepts to the public.
Using CURE Data
Data collection is overseen by the instructor and trained research Learning Assistants. The data are provided to the instructor who helps the students analyze and interpret the data. The instructor assesses the quality of the data and uploads the data onto the public Google Docs database. Student data are free for anyone to use and will not be published in peer-review journals. However, student gains in retention, graduation, attitudes, motivation, metacognition, etc. may be measured and published in peer-review journals along with a description of the project in educational research or learning science journals. This is where stakeholders will find access to the student data. Links will also be provided on the BGSU Marine Lab web page.
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