NARRAGANSETT – Local teachers set sail last month aboard the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography’s (URI GSO) RV Endeavor, conducting scientific research in the field in coordination with GSO’s Rhode Island Teachers at Sea Program. As part of the program’s mission, the educators will now take their experiences at sea back to the classroom to help students gain a better understanding of the research process, professional collaboration at the heart of the initiative, the science behind it all and much more.
“On this cruise, I really enjoyed the overall camaraderie and teamwork among the science party (scientists and teachers),” said Kathleen Couchon, a science teacher at Narragansett High School. “We teachers had a great time learning from the scientists and techs and from each other. We worked really well together and had a lot of fun and laughs as well.”
The Rhode Island Teachers at Sea Program is designed to establish sustainable partnerships between ocean scientists, researchers and teachers who live and teach in Rhode Island. Teachers selected for the program will become part of a scientific research team conducting ocean science research during a cruise aboard the RV Endeavor. With continued funding from the State of Rhode Island, the initiative welcomes any Rhode Island-based K-16 educator, both formal and informal, of all teaching disciplines. Participants are then expected to bring their experience with the program back to the classroom.
On this particular cruise, which took place from Friday, Sept. 13 through Sunday, Sept. 15, teachers and researchers were deploying oceanographic equipment and conducting the collection and study of water, sediment and marine life samples. Participants traveled both off of Block Island and to the Continental Shelf Break for the purposes of sample collection. The first stop was at “The Mudhole,” southeast of Block Island, where the group collected sediment samples.
“The samples were brought back to shore for a separate study,” said Brenda Dillman, an 8th grade science teacher at Curtis Corner Middle School in South Kingstown. “The most thrilling part was waking up, after a night of being tossed about in our bunks by the sea, at the edge of the continental slope where the water depth was 2,500 meters and the ocean a sapphire blue. We got samples of water at a variety of depths between the surface and 2,500 meters, testing for conductivity, temperature, depth, chlorophyll and oxygen.”
“We also deployed and tested a large plankton net composed of 10 different subnets, that could open and close in order to collect plankton at prescribed depths,” Dillman continued. “We put our decorated Styrofoam cups in a mesh bag, tied them to the CTD and dropped them to 2,500 meters. When they surfaced, the cups were a fraction of their original size due to the intense pressure.”
The plankton net mentioned by Dillman allowed participants to study ocean wildlife up close and personal, and the resulting session became a lasting memory.
“A favorite moment occurred when six of the teachers crowded together in a dark cabin after collecting lots of deep sea critters using the [plankton net] with a pail of these deep sea critters,” said Couchon. “We had viewed some bioluminescence from a few fish and ctenophores and wanted to view it more clearly. Though we didn’t see the bioluminescence, we discovered the depth of our camaraderie, inquisitiveness and sense of humor.”
The group also bonded over many meals, morning sunrises and night stargazing sessions from ship’s deck.
“Being far enough out in the Atlantic Ocean that you can see nothing but ocean–and aware that there are 2,500 meters of water (and sea life) below you–gives a unique reminder of how massive and important our oceans are to our entire Earth system,” said Sarah Matthews, education curator at the Museum of Natural History in Roger Williams Park in Providence.
“Making connections with the other educators and program participants from around the state, learning from our chief scientist and hearing the stories and experiences from the ship’s crew were also a highlight. Everyone on the ship was fantastic and they were all so gracious to the teachers, showing us around the engine room and the bridge. It was clear how much pride they take in their ship and their roles aboard it.”
When asked how they would incorporate lessons learned on the cruise into the classroom and curriculum, teachers were eager to share their ideas and thoughts for taking an educational experience and bringing it down to the practical level of a high school student. Couchon, for starters, sees the expedition as an opportunity for education professionals to better understand the scope of possibilities that come with a career in the marine science field.
“I was so impressed with the variety of jobs and skills employed by all the crew of the Endeavor and am most excited to bring this new knowledge back to the school and my students and colleagues,” she said. “Many high school students do not understand what possibilities exist in oceanographic research– they think marine biologists, one of the perhaps more visible jobs. But there are so many other possible scientific disciplines, technical jobs, deck crew and engineering careers to consider. Students who desire a non-desk or office job, who like to tinker and who enjoy video games could explore careers that would allow them to explore the environment right in their own state or exploring the oceans of the world.”
Dillman and fellow South Kingstown educator and Rhode Island Teachers at Sea participant Valerie Light were struck by the collaboration required for a successful scientific journey.
“Science is a team effort,” said Dillman. “Each person had their job to do, and the crew and scientists all depend on each other to pull their own weight. We will incorporate this experience into our study of ocean currents and profiles.”
For Burrilville 8th grade science teacher Michael Meehan, the experience helped reinvigorate a scientific passion and illustrated the true function of the profession.
“It would be difficult for me to conduct any of these experiments out with my students, but the longer I was aboard the ship, the more I realized that was not the point of this amazing professional development,” said Meehan. “What I came to realize was that this experience was to show us that real science is active, and exciting. I have been teaching for 15 years, which means I haven’t been in a lab doing real science since college. Even then, it was following a format to complete said lab in three hours. The three days at sea altered my view on how science is really conducted. I talked to group leaders, crew members and my roommate who was a graduate student throughout the three days. By doing so, I gained an understanding of how research and science is truly done. This is what I am going to bring back to my students for years to come.” Dr. David Smith, a marine microbial ecology researcher at URI GSO was the cruise’s chief scientist. Rhode Island Teachers at Sea is administered by URI GSO’s Office of Marine Programs. To learn more, please visit web.uri.edu./gso/research/outreach/rhode-island-teachers-at-sea-program.