Virginia Marine Resource Bulletin
Volume 40, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2008
By Margaret Pizer
Visit the Bridge at www.vims.edu/bridge.
Vicki Clark remembers how she and other Sea Grant educators used to illustrate the powers and pitfalls of the Internet for teachers: they would type “dolphin” into a search engine like Google and watch as more than a million results came back. That was back in the late 1990s. Now the same search returns an even more overwhelming avalanche of pages—58.4 million of them to be precise. “And a lot of them are about the football team,” Clark points out.
Now imagine a middle school teacher rushing to prepare a lesson on dolphins during a fifty-minute prep period. A teacher may have a degree in biology or another area of science, and a good dose of common sense, but how can teachers sort through the clutter to find Web sites with reliable, useful information at the right grade level?
This is exactly the situation for which the Bridge was developed. The Bridge (www.marine-ed.org/bridge) is an online clearinghouse that links to more than 1,200 Web pages that provide marine science information for teachers. In 1998, Virginia Sea Grant educators, including Clark, Lee Larkin, and Lisa Ayers Lawrence, launched the Web site to provide teachers with accurate, useable marine science resources at the click of a mouse. A grant from the National Oceanographic Partnership Program and a partnership with the National Marine Educators Association (NMEA) got the site off the ground. This year, the Bridge is celebrating ten successful years by debuting a redesigned site that is more dynamic and easier to search than the original.
The Bridge was named to evoke the wheelhouse of a ship—putting teachers at the helm in “an ocean of marine education resources” as the site’s new tagline puts it. “This is the place where everything is happening, you’re in command, and you can see everything,” explains Larkin, who now serves as Virginia Sea Grant’s assistant director. But the site also forms a bridge between scientists and teachers, translating scientific data into forms that can be used in the classroom.
“I know that the lessons posted on the Bridge are accurate and appropriate, so that has always been a safety net for me,” says Mellie Lewis, a retired teacher who volunteers helping teachers develop an oceanography unit for gifted fifth graders in Howard County, Maryland. A peer review process is at the heart of the Bridge’s success. Lewis and other teachers sign on as TROLLs (Teacher Reviewers of On-Line Learning) and review Web sites before they are listed on the Bridge. “We evaluate them for hands-on content, accuracy, grade level, and usability,” says Lewis.
Sea Grant staff make sure the sites come from scientifically reputable sources, and additional scientists (STARs or Scientific and Technical Advisory Reviewers) are available to review the sites for scientific accuracy if needed. Sites that pass the review make it onto the Bridge’s lists of resources, which are categorized by subject matter and grade level. “Anybody can put up a Web site, and they don’t have to know what they’re talking about,” says North Carolina Sea Grant Marine Education Specialist Terri Kirby Hathaway. “On the Bridge, you know the sites have been checked out and have valuable information that is current and correct. There’s no other search engine I know of that does that for you.”
Another popular feature of the Bridge is the DATA (Data Analysis Teaching Activity) series. For years, Virginia Sea Grant staff have regularly posted marine science datasets and associated classroom activities. The archive of DATAs covers topics from bycatch to tsunamis. “The DATAs came the year after we launched the Bridge,” says Larkin. “There was a lot of conversation about how great the Internet was for science education because for the first time real scientific datasets were available online, but the question in the teacher’s mind was ‘what do I do with them?’ We started posting little snippets of ideas for classroom activities using real oceanographic data and have moved more toward full-scale lesson plans because that’s what the teachers said they wanted.”
Educators Chris Petrone and Lisa Ayers Lawrence develop DATAs and maintain the Bridge, researching new content, managing the review process, and moderating Scuttlebutt, an electronic mailing list for marine educators.
Usage statistics for the Bridge show an upward, but cyclical trend, with more visitors using the site during the school year, and the number of visits increasing steadily over its ten-year lifetime, reaching nearly 26,000 visitors a month during the 2007–2008 school year. Traffic on Scuttlebutt has also exploded over the past couple of years, says Ayers Lawrence. “We plateaued at 500 subscribers for a while, but now we are up to 1,300, and while we used to get one or two messages a week, now there are at least two to three a day.”
Subscribers from around the world use Scuttlebutt to post information about upcoming workshops and professional development opportunities for teachers, to share recommendations for textbooks and other resources, and to ask for help identifying animals or answering puzzling scientific questions. Long Island teacher and TROLL Kimberly Williams uses Scuttlebutt to get her classes more engaged. “Last year one of my students wanted to know if there is a place on Earth where the Coriolis force is negligible, so we asked on Scuttlebutt. I shared the responses with the kids, and they loved that someone was responding to them—not just other teachers but scientists who use this stuff every day.”
While some of the uptick in traffic on the Bridge and Scuttlebutt could stem from an increase in the number of teachers offering marine science courses, it also likely results from dramatic changes over the past decade in the use of online resources in the classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1994 only 35% of public schools had Internet access. By 1998, when the Bridge launched, that number had risen to 89%, and in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, more than 99.5% of public schools had Internet access. Over the same period, the percent of classrooms with Internet access rose from 3% in 1994 to 51% in 1998 to 94% in 2005. Now, on average, there is one computer with Internet access in the schools for every four students.
The prevalence of Internet-connected computers in classrooms has allowed teachers to make use of the Bridge in ways they might not have imagined ten years ago. “When the Internet first came to schools, you had one computer available to many different teachers,” says Williams. Teachers had to print out any Web pages they thought they might use because they didn’t know when they would next have an opportunity to go online.
Now Williams can project Web pages on a screen in her classroom or conduct her class in a computer lab where each student has access to the Internet. “One fear that teachers always have is that computers will replace hands-on learning, but I’ve found that they add to it,” she says. The Bridge and other online resources also help Williams reach students who don’t want to touch animals or who are overstimulated in the classroom. “You put them in front of a computer and all of a sudden everyone’s gathered around them watching them put a graph together or track a hurricane on a map. When we get back in the classroom, they’re excited about it.”
Jean May-Brett, the Math Science Partnership Program coordinator for Louisiana, agrees that the Bridge can be an important tool for getting students engaged. “If we’ve had a tsunami in Asia or a fish kill in Louisiana or grandma and grandpa have gone to Florida and encountered a harmful algal bloom, the Bridge is the perfect location for a teacher to send a student to look up information or for the teacher to find it easily,” she says.
Bridge staff are constantly upgrading the site to accommodate more content and address these new uses. The site now lists more than 1,200 online resources, and over the past few years, they have made the transition to running the site from a database to allow for easier updating of materials and links and better search functions. This year at the NMEA convention, Bridge staff unveiled a redesigned site with a sleek new look.
Other improvements in the works include refining the DATA series into complete lesson plans with objectives, time requirements, grade levels, and other information that teachers are used to seeing. The lesson plans will be available as PDFs for printing. “It’s amazing how little time teachers have for planning,” says Petrone. “They need ‘one stop shopping,’ so we try to make the Bridge as ready-to-go as possible.” The Bridge staff also hopes to provide resources and activities in Spanish, to show teachers ways of relating Bridge activities to ocean literacy educational standards, and to develop more DATAs that use data from ocean observing systems.
The future looks bright for the Bridge. The growth of Google and increased Internet literacy among teachers has only increased the value of this resource. “Everybody can go to Google and look something up now, whereas ten years ago that wasn’t everyone’s immediate first response,” says Ayers Lawrence. “What we offer is resources all in one place and reviewed by teachers.” Teachers still have limited time and often lack the background expertise to parse inaccurate Web sites from scientifically sound ones, so they still go to the Bridge first to find useful resources faster.
So what can teachers find about dolphins on the Bridge? Links to aquaria, summer camps and training programs for aspiring marine mammalogists, scientific information from research labs and resource management agencies—thirty-one peer-reviewed Web sites—and some inspiration to get students excited about ocean science.
BOX: Oceans of Data
It looks solitary, but a buoy in the Chesapeake Bay off of Stingray Point, Virginia, is actually part of a worldwide network of data stations—the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS)—that has sprung up over the last decade. Every ten minutes, the buoy and five others in the Bay measure meteorological and oceanographic variables like wind speed, water temperature, and wave height and relay the information to a Web site (www.buoybay.org) where the public can see it in real time.
This torrent of data seems like a gold mine for teachers, but it can also be overwhelming. “Teachers love to use real data, but they really don’t have time to find it, digest it, and make up an activity,” says Virginia Sea Grant educator Chris Petrone. To overcome this barrier, Virginia Sea Grant offers workshops that build on the DATAs and links provided on the Bridge.
In the summer of 2007, twelve teachers participated in a three-day workshop on coastal observing systems, particularly the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS), of which the Stingray Point buoy is a part. The workshop was funded by the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office Bay Watershed Education and Training program. At the end, teachers took home a backpack full of instruments for studying water quality with their classes—from an anemometer and a global positioning system to kits to test water pH, nitrate, and phosphate—along with classroom activities and insight on how to better use real-time data in the classroom.
This year, nine teachers returned to VIMS, bringing eight new recruits. They attended lectures by oceanographers who use the IOOS for research, learned about Bridge activities that use CBIBS data, and took a research cruise and practiced using water-quality monitoring gear.
In addition to the CBIBS workshop, this summer Sea Grant educators offered a week-long, hands-on experience for teachers at the VIMS Eastern Shore Lab and a one-day workshop on submerged aquatic vegetation that had teachers waste-deep in seagrass beds collecting data on the grass and the animals living in and around it.