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Female hand grabbing card in board game

Microbiology grad student’s board game teaches ocean ecology

By Debbie Farris

Quinn Washburn's board game, Oligotrophic

Microbiology graduate student Quinn Washburn developed a board game called Oligotrophic designed to help students understand the microbial ecology of the oceans and movement of biomass. Marine microbes live extraordinary lives of their own, albeit ones fraught with danger and opportunity.

Driven to help educate children and others about the essential marine microbes that form the basis of life in the ocean and that perform 50 percent of the Earth’s photosynthesis, Washburn created the game, Oligotrophic.

Characterized by slow growth, low rates of metabolism and generally low population density, an oligotroph is an organism that can live in an environment with very low levels of nutrients. Oligotrophic environments include deep oceanic sediments, caves, glacial and polar ice, deep subsurface soil, aquifers, ocean waters, and leached soils as well as subtropical ocean gyres that cover a substantial portion of the Earth’s surface.

“It was my goal to create a fun, engaging and interactive game that would transport students into the microbial world so they could learn about this incredible ecosystem, where the action is invisible to the naked eye,” said Washburn.

Quinn Washburn sitting in front of table with his board game
Quinn Washburn, microbiology graduate student

The aspiring microbiologist created two versions of the game: Oligotrophic, the full version of the game for upper-level middle school students as well as hobby gamers; and Tiny Oligotrophic, a simplified version for younger audiences and more casual players.

Oligotrophic is an easy-to-learn, game where players strategically place tiles to build biomass the fastest. Players select and play hexagonal cards based on actual microorganisms to accumulate biomass, often getting bonuses, hurting, or taking biomass from the other organisms they encounter.

Check out the games on Board Game Geek. Oligotrophic is fully available online in full color and print friendly versions in the files section of the website. All you need to play is 20 cubes of a color for each player.

In his day job at the lab, Washburn uses next generation high throughput culturing to study bacterial community dynamics. He studies marine bacterial communities in the deep ocean as well as the zebrafish gut microbiome. The goal of his research is to provide insights into the interactions of microorganisms in their natural environments.

Washburn works in the Stephen Giovannoni Lab, which partners with OSU’s the Science Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) Program to enhance science education for elementary through high school students.

Oligotrophic was developed as a learning tool in conjunction with SMILE Program. SMILE serves schools serving minority, low-income, historically underrepresented, and other educationally underserved populations. SMILE uses an experience-based learning model to engage and inspire students with the ultimate goal of increasing success in higher education and participation in STEM careers.

SMILE is supported by the Colleges of Science, Education, and Earth Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, foundations and partners in the community as well as others across OSU, including the Giovannoni Lab.

The Giovannoni Lab supports SMILE through NSF grants, including Dissolved Organic Carbon Cycling by SAR11 Marine Bacteria, OCE-1436865, and Dimensions: Collaborative Research: Unraveling thiamin cycling complexity and impacts on microbial networks DEB 1639033). The grants cover the costs of travel and board for each attendee.

Check out photos from the 2019 Winter SMILE Teacher Workshop held at Oregon State University.