Plankton: tiny creatures with enormous consequences. This is the message of PLANKTON CLUB at Newton Ferrers primary school in Devon, a project funded by the Royal Society Partnership Grants scheme. Plankton Club is an after-school science learning and adventure club run in partnership with Dr Richard Kirby, Research Fellow at the Marine Institute, Plymouth University, where children learn all about plankton. Through studying plankton, children gain a perspective on grand topics including the carbon cycle, ecological succession and climate change; as well as the role plankton plays in such beautiful and intriguing natural phenomena as clouds, the white cliffs of Dover and the smell of the sea. The project ‘astonishes by revealing a microscopic world living at the sunlit sea surface,’ says Richard. Students Maya and Aiobh expressed the wonder of this discovery through creative writing, describing one type of plankton as ‘glittering like fairground lights’ and another which is ‘like a gherkin’. For Milly and Lizzie, they were like ‘aliens from Mars’.
Plankton are among the tiniest organisms on the planet, and they are vital to ecosystems in lakes, oceans and waterways all over the world. Children from Newton Ferrers set out to catch them close to home, in group expeditions to a local estuary. They worked together to design and make their own plankton fishing apparatus – all made from tights! The money that they were awarded enabled them to invest in a powerful microscope as well as a camera and software so that groups of students could view the plankton together on their classroom whiteboard screen. The project was a great way to engage with ‘children’s curiosity for a new subject,’ says Justine Dixon, lead teacher on the project, as well as ‘providing cross-curricular learning opportunities, including creative writing, digital photography and use of a microscope.’
In a series of classes and workshops (including workshops for parents!) Richard Kirby used the plankton examples to demonstrate the appearance of different types of planktonic life in the sea as the seasons change, linking this to what children could observe at home in their own garden ponds. Students discovered how plankton are vital to the marine food web, as well as their role in producing oxygen and regulating carbon dioxide, and their importance in the burial of carbon as sediment over many years to produce the fossil fuels of today. ‘The wonderful thing about this project is the way it links the very large with the very small,’ says Marie-Claude Dupuis, Education Outreach Manager at the Royal Society. ‘Students go from the tiniest creatures in their own back yards to the biggest topics in environmental science today.’
After gathering data and learning about their finds, students worked on developing materials to take Plankton Club on tour around other schools in their area. They participated in a ‘Schools Go Wild’ event at Plymouth University, which gave them the chance to showcase their work to other local schools, including the equipment they had created and samples of plankton to be examined. They invited neighbouring schools to participate in a Plankton Workshop, designing and running activities such as wordsearches, group microscope sessions and a build-a-plankton creative exercise. They also showcased their work at Yealmpton Agricultural Show, and were even featured in the Plymouth Herald!