A New Program Puts Coastal Scientist In the Classrooms of Local Schools

Jun 14, 2013

This week, we talk about a new partnership between the Institute of Marine Sciences and local schools where coastal scientists become teachers for a day.

Last week, a group of third grade students in Beaufort were learning about coastal habitats, food web dynamics and the different kinds of marine life found along the North Carolina coast.  But the lesson wasn’t being taught by teachers. Instead, graduate students from the Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City offered a unique, hands-on lesson about our coastal ecology.  Tiller School third grader Jack McMann.

“I was an oyster drill.  An oyster drill is a kind of animal that finds an oyster shell and it drills thru oyster shells to eat the meat.”

The new one-of-a-kind program SciREN, an acronym for the Scientific Research and Education Network, is aimed at building a relationship between coastal scientists and local teachers.  The idea, the brainchild of grad students Ethan Theuerkauf and Justin Ridge.

“Ethan and I both come from a background where we have parents as teachers.  And we know that teachers are often limited in both resources and time. And so we thought it would be a great idea to help them out by bringing everyone together in one place.”

On April 25th, the first SciREN Networking event was held at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. Ridge says about 60 teachers from across eastern North Carolina, the Triad and even Virginia participated.

“And so we bring the teachers and the scientist into the same room and we get them talking and the scientists have prepared all of these lesson plans and activities and they gave them to the teachers.  So it helps the teachers with resources, but as scientist we need to get our science out into the community.”

The April workshop provided scientists an opportunity to share free, grade-oriented resources on lessons about the ocean, including how pollutants are spread by ocean currents and how barrier islands respond to sea level rise.  Tiller School’s Technology teacher Kelly Riley was at the event.

“We had an opportunity to actually go around and experience a lot of the activities for ourselves, ask questions, they gave us handouts, and things to bring back and of course their contact information.”

Riley is responsible for taking the SciREN program to Tiller School.  Since that workshop, four groups of scientists have visited the school to engage students about the coastal environment. She says the lessons help reinforce what’s been taught in the classroom.

“we have a tremendous information to cover so if we have this network and these connections available to us, we have the opportunity to go to the experts. So the teachers are learning, but then the first hand information coming to our students is invaluable.”

“So I think there’s someone over here that might eat these oysters.”

Last Wednesday, grad students Michelle Brodeur and Sara Coleman presented a SciREN lesson on the ocean’s food web to the third grade class at Tiller School.  Both scientists designed the ecology lesson to speak to the imagination of youngsters about the complexities of coastal habitats. 

After reading a description of their animal on an index card...

“I eat lots of things including worms, barnacles, blue crabs and shellfish like oysters.  I use my very strong claws to break into hard shells.”

The students sit next to their animal food source.  A piece of yarn connects the two together forming a chain.  Then the chain is connected to other food chains forming a food web.  Third grader Charlotte Bickley’s role as a perrywinkle snail helped her understand how the food web works.

 “Once you think of a food web, you think of a spider web and stuff like that. The yarn helps kind of represent a spider web except it keeps going down and down and down like to the top of the food chain to the bottom of the food chain.  So it’s like a bunch of food chains connected all together?  Yeah!”

The activity also introduced student Chase Lewis to new ocean life he's never heard of before.

 “I was a… I can’t remember it really.  It was something like a… something-a-pod or… It’s a small creature that’s kind of like a shrimp, except way tinier. “

Grad students Michelle Brodeur and Sara Coleman also taught about the different habitats that are found off the coast. 

“everybody’s going to be eating on everybody else. So what do we do sometimes if we are scared and we want to feel safe?  Go into defense mode, okay. I heard it over here.  We want to hide! Right, so how do we hide from predators?  Go in your shell, that’s a good one but what if you don’t have a shell? What if you’re a fish?”

After another activity, the third grade class had to prepare to dismiss for the day.  Sara Coleman explained to me the reason she wanted to be involved in the SciREN program.

“You can kind of get separated being in academia, reading papers and doing experiments. It’s like narrow minded I guess. But then you have to think about why we’re actually doing this. We want to get the information out there. This is good because they’re kids and they’re easy to talk to and they get interested plus they live here on the coast so they are interested in how things work and they want to learn more about what’s around them.”

The school year is over now. But Tiller School’s Technology teacher Kelly Riley hopes to bring in even more coastal scientist and graduate students next year.

 “I’ve never had a student tell me that they loved the graph on page 79 of their textbook, in all my 16 years.  But students come back and tell me whether it’s years later or in that same school year, Mrs. Kelly, I loved this activity, or do you remember when we did this… it’s those hands on opportunities that really make a difference with our students.”

The SciREN program is sponsored by the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences, North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence – Southeast, and North Carolina Sea Grant.  The lesson plans and other resources are available to teachers for free.  For more information, go to publicradioeast.org.  I’m Jared Brumbaugh.

Teachers interested in seeing the material should contact: SciREN.Outreach@gmail.com.