By Katharine Sucher, Staff Writer
In late October, 160 oceanography students filed off of four yellow school buses and onto Little Island Park in Virginia Beach, Virginia. With packed lunches in tow, the 11th and 12th graders from King’s Fork High School in Suffolk, Virginia, prepared for a day of hands-on learning.
Steve Marshall, oceanography and earth science teacher at King’s Fork High School, organized the field trip after attending the Virginia Coastal Ecosystem Field Course the previous July. The field course, funded by Virginia Sea Grant, was a weeklong professional development opportunity that provided schoolteachers with scientific activities and lesson plans to teach ocean science.
Marshall used some of the techniques he learned at the field course to help his own students learn about marine science. Students rotated through seven stations to practice taking oceanographic measurements. They measured the beach profile, tested water quality, performed sediment analysis, recorded species diversity, and more. In addition to providing a break from traditional classroom learning, the field trip had important educational benefits.
“Applying different concepts in the field helped a lot of students understand what we had been talking about in the classroom,” Marshall said. “A lot of times your read something in a textbook and can’t relate to it, but when we actually got out there it was like watching a bunch of light bulbs go off.”
The field course has been an ongoing program offered by Virginia Institute of Marine Science educators affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant. In its 2014 iteration, the course promoted learning about marine science in the field, connecting teachers with professional scientists, and using data in the classroom.
Scientists Connect with Students
“Do you remember sample number 256? Why do you think the chaetognatha population was so high in that sample?”
This was the question one seventh-grade student posed to Jami Ivory, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science graduate student.
In an effort to connect teachers with scientists working on the cutting-edge of marine research, Ivory presented a lesson plan at the Virginia Coastal Ecosystem Field Course. When Sherri Shupe, a life science teacher at Andrew Lewis Middle School, decided to use Ivory’s lesson, she invited the scientist to connect remotely with her class in Salem, Virginia.
In a classroom that’s 345 miles from the coast, many students have never seen the ocean. Connecting the class with a working scientist was, according to Shupe, “the best real life experience” she could have brought to her classroom.
Ivory’s lesson was based off of her thesis work studying zooplankton. The lab involved identifying and counting samples of zooplankton using real data Ivory had collected for her thesis work, and to her, the student’s question about chaetognatha populations was a sign of success.
“It was exciting to see a middle school student remember a word like chaetognatha, the scientific term for a type of marine worm, and be curious enough to ask something about it,” Ivory recalls. “Plus the student’s question was spot on: that’s one of the exact questions my thesis work is aiming to answer.”
In addition to providing scientific expertise, inviting scientists into the classroom can have positive impacts on students’ self-esteem.
Said Ivory, “When students interact with a scientist who doesn’t wear a lab coat and have crazy glasses, they realize scientists aren’t crazy, elite people. It motivates them to think, ‘I can do this too.’”
Classrooms Get Real
Real-world connections can increase student investment in assignments and enthusiasm for coastal and marine topics. That’s why Steve Marshall organized the field trip to Little Island Park and why he challenged students to solve real-world problems back in the classroom. To help students realize the complex societal trade-offs inherent in managing coastal environments, Marshall implemented a fisheries management game from the field course. He assigned students roles representing commercial fisherman, recreational fisherman, fisheries management scientist, and legal representative.
Students had to advocate for the needs of their assigned role while also working together to manage a hypothetical fishery. The decisions they made affected the health and size of a fish population represented by pinto beans.
“The students really enjoyed the ‘real-world’ application of the fisheries management game,” Marshall said. “It helped them understand how many people are involved in fisheries management decisions and how complicated reaching a consensus can be.”
Ivory also believes in the importance of incorporating real-world connections into the classroom. That’s why she showed photos of herself collecting samples of plankton when she connected remotely to Shupe’s life science class. Ivory and Shupe hoped that showing students they were working with actual scientific data would instill a sense of importance when the students were identifying and counting samples of plankton.
“When you use real data, it’s not just busy work. It’s real, cutting-edge science. That can help inspire passion in students and spark a big interest in something that might have seemed hum-drum before,” Ivory said.
Both Shupe and Marshall look forward to implementing more ideas from the Virginia Coastal Ecosystem Workshop.
Marshall hopes to organize another field trip to Little Island Park with a new crop of students in the fall. He also plans to implement another role-playing activity to help students learn about the impacts of sea level rise.
Shupe is considering bringing another scientist into the classroom and plans to use resources from the field course throughout her teaching career. She credits the Virginia Coastal Ecosystem Workshop with improving her ability to teach about marine science and with reminding her of an important lesson.
“By the end of the workshop I realized it’s okay for a teacher to say, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ Being way across the state, I had never done salinity tests or water quality tests before. But,” Shupe says, “for teachers to be able to teach, it’s also important for us to learn.”