LAKEWOOD – Lakewood High School STEM Club students competing in a national competition are combining the wisdom of science with the forces of girl power to solve the problem of invasive species in the Seven Lakes area.
Their project was inspired by a fisherman who hooked a 5-pound, non-native Pacu with humanoid teeth in Lake Ki a few years ago that, unlike its bitey South America blood relative, is sometimes called “the vegetarian pirahna.”
The STEM Girls Club is all smiles after being named one of five finalists statewide in the Samsung “Solve for Tomorrow” Education Contest.
When their project was selected, it inspired them to take their research to the next level.
“I wasn’t expecting us to get this far, but it was really cool when we did,” sophomore Katlyn McCrae said. “I found with STEM I can embrace my nerdiness.”
Advisor Danielle Leach, who teaches science and astrobiology, said the club in only its second year is “small but mighty” at 10 members, and is trying to open of the world of STEM to more young women. School administrators saw that other students were able to use STEM club on their college applications and scholarships.
“Students, especially in today’s world, need to know that they can affect a change on the world,” Leach said. “It shouldn’t be, ‘It’s too big of a problem for me to help with.’ This is a great opportunity to show, and show themselves, that they can do this.”
Sophomore Cassie Mann said their topic was a unanimous decision.
“We talked about invasive species; we started looking at that and just kind of realized it was something in our area that we could take on,” Mann said.
Their inspiration came in part from a 2014 article in The Herald about an exotic-looking fish that had been caught in Lake Ki. It didn’t belong there, and it peaked their interest.
“It was creepy looking; we all thought it was pretty weird that a fish had teeth that looked human,” sophomore Mahayla Flores said.
Mann said there have been a couple of sightings since, but not much has been made about it. She said there are other invasive species that the club plans to research, and others that scientists may not have yet come across.
Mann said they found that people who didn’t want their tropical fish anymore sometimes simply release them into a lake, which can impact the ecosystem. The warm-water swimmers tend to grow beyond the norm, then die in the fall unable to survive the harsh Pacific Northwest winter.
“It’s usually tropical fish that people buy because it’s pretty-looking, but then they end up getting too big so they end up dumping it,” McCrae added. “That’s where all the problems arise.”
McCrae shared her own experience when she visited a pet store to get tropical fish for her grandmother, there was no literature or signage warning customers or the public about not releasing fish into local waters.
The team wants to change that. Through the project that will run into spring the team plans to talk with wildlife biologists and other experts, and explore invasive species and their presence in the Seven Lakes area, how they affect the ecosystem, and steps they can take to raise awareness.
They plan to start with creating a low-cost pamphlet, public service announcements or campaign about options for people who buy fish from pet stores other than dropping them in a lake.
McCrae likened their efforts to the precautionary steps that boaters take to wash down their boats, and the informational efforts made to educate them.
“There’s awareness about making sure you check your boat when you go state to state,” McCrae said. “You’ve got to make sure it’s cleaned and checked, but there’s nothing about fish.”
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife lists online invasive fish that are banned from release in local waters include Gar, carp, pirahna, Northern Pike and mudfish. It’s an issue that state and county agencies monitor.
“Invasive species are terribly dangerous to Washington’s diverse array of plants and animals,” said Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who oversees more than 5.6 million acres of state forestlands, aquatic lands and natural areas.
She said it’s fantastic that the young women are raising awareness about an important issue. “I hope that in the future some of them will come work as scientists with our Natural Heritage Program, where we work to preserve ecosystems in their natural state,” Franz said.
As finalists, Samsung gave the STEM club a laptop computer to detail their efforts.
If their project bests the state’s other candidates, they will receive a $25,000 production package to create a video about the project. Their results would qualify them to pitch at the national level, where grand prize winners could win $150,000 for their team.
Where young women entering the workforce are concerned, Lakewood STEM educators have seen that the number of women in biology, chemistry and math has increased in recent years, but the gap has widened in computer science and persists in engineering and physics.
“Our goal is to inspire and encourage people to follow their dreams, and leave it as open as it is,” Leach said. “If it ends up they’re going into those fields, great, but we really just want them to be inspired to do whatever makes them happy.”
Sophomore Maddy Clark wants to take her love for animals into biology. “I want to study them and figure out ways to help them and their environment.”
The young women have plenty of female role models to inspire them.
McCrae, who wants to study medicine and become a heart surgeon, said her mom is an emergency room nurse. “That inspires me every day.”
She added, “There are a lot of inspiring women scientists out there, women who are changing the way people think about scientists. It doesn’t have to be just the men that wear bow ties. But if you wear bowties, go ahead.”
Flores said she hopes their project inspires more girls to come forward and say, “I can do this. Nothing can stop me.”
Along with Lakewood, other high schools finalists are Hudson’s Bay in Vancouver, Nathan Hale in Seattle, Waterville and even Lynden Middle School.
They are vying with 225 schools nationwide for a share in the $2 million contest that challenges 6th through 12th graders to use STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) to address real-world problems in their communities.