Lessons Learned from a Course-base Undergraduate Research Experience on the Ecological Impacts of Microplastic Pollution in Estuaries with Contrasting Levels of Urbanization

Rebecca G Asch, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, United States and Heather Vance-Chalcraft, East Carolina University, Department of Biology, Greenville, NC, United States
Estuaries play a central role in marine plastic pollution as an entry point for debris into the ocean. Estuaries can also be monitored with minimal travel, making them accessible sites for Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs). During Fall 2018 and Spring 2020, a CURE was developed and revised at East Carolina University for upper-division undergraduate, biology majors that compared the concentration of microplastic particles at the mouths of the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers in North Carolina. These rivers were selected due to contrasting urbanization in their watersheds. During fieldtrips, students sampled water quality parameters, neustonic mesozooplankton, benthic macrofauna, and demersal fishes. Samples were analyzed to assess whether the size distribution of microplastic particles overlapped with that of planktonic and benthic organisms, which could affect pathways through which plastic enters the food web. Students also quantified microplastic ingestion among fishes. For final projects, students created poster presentations for an undergraduate research symposium and designed K-12 lesson plans for local schools. Compared to an accompanying lecture class, there were a higher percent of white male students with prior research experience in the CURE, suggesting that upper-division CUREs may not always contribute towards increasing STEM diversity. However, compared to the lecture class, students in the CURE achieved slightly higher and more uniform scores on an abbreviated version of the Test of Science Literacy Skills (TOSLS), suggesting that the CURE served to even the playing field across students from different backgrounds. Other lessons learned include: 1) training cruises familiarize students with sampling methods; 2) simplified and standardized protocols for identifying taxa are needed; 3) it is imperative to prepare for medical emergencies; 4) flexibility is needed, especially when natural disasters, such as Hurricane Florence, strike.