By Julia Robins, Staff Writer
On the second day of the weeklong Virginia Coastal Ecosystem Field Course, 16 teachers played the parts of fishermen, policymakers, fisheries scientists, and recreational fishermen. During the activity, called “The Daily Catch,” they bartered with beans as they tried to design a sustainable fishery. The role-playing activity demonstrated how profitable and sustainable fisheries require collaboration among people with a range of knowledge of biology, fishing practices, economics, and more.
Developed by Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) educators affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant (VASG), the VASG-funded course has been a nearly annual professional development opportunity since 2001. It introduces teachers to a variety of scientific activities to get their students excited about ocean science, including water quality testing, estimating sea level rise, and role playing.
This July was the first time GK12 fellows were invited to contribute. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the GK12 program trained graduate students in science education and communication by placing them with teachers and students in local K-12 schools.
One of the three GK12 fellows joining the field course this year was Annie Murphy, who studies aquaculture at VIMS and led the sustainable fisheries activity. Says Murphy, “I’ve found relating science topics to applications familiar to the students … reminds them that what they are learning is not just to pass the test—it’s useful information for their lives and society.”
While Murphy and the other fellows have gained experience teaching in local classrooms, their role as contributing instructors for the field course let them share their research and classroom activities with teachers beyond the scope of the GK12 program.
The addition of the GK12 fellows was “a huge added bonus to the course we’ve been providing for years,” says Lisa Lawrence, VIMS extension staff affiliated with VASG, who led the team that conducted the course. For many teachers, ocean science and coastal ecosystems are topics that are not often taught or discussed in schools. The fellows’ expertise, coupled with their science communication training, helped the teachers gain the ocean science skills they needed. “That’s really exciting,” says Lawrence.
Two GK12 partner teachers—teachers who have worked with the GK12 fellows—also joined the course this year. “The GK12 partner teachers were a great addition because they helped model for the course participants how to integrate the fellows’ research and activities into classroom instruction,” says Lawrence.
“The research topics were introduced to us in a way that made them applicable to not only ‘the scientific community’ or scientists, but to us and to our classrooms and students,” said one teacher in a voluntary evaluation of the course. “I feel like I can take these real life, very important and current topics and integrate them into all three of my middle school curriculums.”
In addition to classroom activities, Murphy and two VIMS marine scientists led the teachers on a boat trip to the East Wye mudflat. There, the teachers learned about coastal change, mudflat succession, and the environment of the mudflat, all while digging in the mud for worms and other invertebrate specimens to bring back to the lab. Such hands-on fieldwork was heavily emphasized throughout the course as the teachers took trips to different Eastern Shore habitats to study saltmarshes, submerged aquatic vegetation, coastal and sea level change, and more.
“Because of the amazing classroom instruction we received, coupled with the field experiences, I feel very confident in bringing coastal change into my curriculums,” commented one teacher in the evaluation. “I have so many activities from this field experience that I cannot wait to do with my kids!!”
“It was an educational experience unmatched by anything else,” wrote another teacher about the course. “The level of confidence that I have now as a middle school science teacher is much higher than before the field experience, as is my level of confidence in implementing a MWEE [Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience] into my curriculum. This course was such a wealth of real and practical information, skills, activities, and experience. It was a life changing experience for me.”