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Location used for environmental testing.

Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds 2020
Pilot project with DNAiTECH and Haeata Community Campus.



We commenced our journey with our students, to study the tributaries of Te Waihora, using for the first time in Aotearoa New Zealand, the DNAiTECH, DNA technologies designed specifically for secondary education. As part of the first days program, we explored selected key Curious Minds of history, whose passion for inquiry and creative ingenuity led to significant discoveries in biology, including Aristotle, Leeuwenhoek, Hooke, Redi, Pasteur, Mendel, Darwin, Flemming, Franklin, Watson & Crick. We had a great first day that started with mihi whakatau and kai.

The second day involved a teaching component. The 20th century saw the elucidation of bio molecular nano machinery and today we harness these tools for molecular diagnostics. Today’s students are the genomics generation, COVID-19 shows us how powerful molecular tools are part of everyday life. And so, with the development of DNAiTECH, DNA testing comes to the classroom. On the second day the students were learning to set up the DNAiTECH and set App parameters for experiments later in the week. They also worked on their NCEA credits for this project on Te Waihora, establishing their hypotheses for their experiments.


The highlight of the 3rd day was our gathering with Te Waihora interest groups. We were so excited to welcome onto Haeata Campus Te Maiariki Williams from Te Taumutu Rūnanga, Denise Ford from Selwyn District Council, Jarred Arthur, and David Murphy from Environment Canterbury and Hamish Rennie from Lincoln University representing the Waihora Ellesmere Trust. After a mihi whakatau we enjoyed kai while students from the junior school entertained beautifully with waiata. Our senior students received so much from our guests, each one spoke well and thoughtfully, bringing their perspectives, revealing a passion for Te Waihora, its unique qualities, and their care for this environment. Our students came away from our hui  engaged, filled up, perhaps overflowing with information. This journey was indeed a stretching experience, which is just how it should be!


On day four we were very pleased to have Dr. Susie Wood from the Cawthron Institute speak of her team's work on the 300+ lakes project. Taking core sediment samples from the center of lakes in Aotearoa enables mapping of the changes in microbe biodiversity over time using environmental DNA. It is such a powerful method. One example from a lake in the Wairarapa showed a dramatic change in organisms occurring in the 1800's. In this instance, colonial introductions of game fish species have disturbed the ecology, leading to a devastating loss of native species and ecological imbalance. Other examples where deforestation, dairying, leaching of fertilizers and nutrients, the impact of urbanization close to waterway have led to dramatic loss of water quality in so many of our lakes, loss of native biodiversity, the build-up of microorganisms such as E. coli and cyanobacteria. Susie also shared her journey as a young woman in science, her love of the outdoors as a teenager, and those familial influences that led her to become an environmental scientist. The students also practiced their pipetting and then we had a demonstration of the DNAiTECH running real-time DNA amplification of cyanobacteria DNA.


On day 5  we embarked on our Curious Minds field trip to obtain our water samples from tributaries to Te Waihora. After karakia, with our vans loaded up, we headed out into the elements, a cold, damp midwinter adventure. The first stop was at the Kaituna River. One of the vans dung into the soft terrain there and required some muscle to get it back on the road. From Kaituna, we sampled at the lakeside, and then we traveled around the lake from the north side to the south, sampling most of the waterways. Sampling the rivers were made easy by our extension pole device, one or two-liter samples were taken at 10 collection sites. It was obvious that some waterways were quite healthy, others were cloudy and appeared degraded. It will be very interesting to see if the DNA testing for ecoli and cyanobacteria results match the visual appearances of these rivers.


At one stop at Coes Ford, Dr. Susi Wood jumped off the bridge into the Selwyn river and excitedly pulled out some stones covered with cyanobacteria. These would be tested the following week to see if they are the toxic variety? Our hardy group found the trip was great fun, the beach at Taumutu was spectacular with the southerly roaring and foam covered surf rolling in.

At timber Yard point we were privileged to have Counsellor Craig Pauling from Environment Canterbury meet with us and talk about his connection and memories of Te Waihora, how it was before it degraded by intensive farming and then seriously further damaged by the Wahine storm in the 70s. It was a great day, freezing temperatures, warm spirits, reinforced by copious quantities of chocolate, peanut butter sandwiches and chips at Leeston on the way home.