Twenty-one hundred meters below the ocean's surface, Styrofoam cups shrink to the size of thimbles.
Melissa Fye, former Ashburn Elementary School fourth-grade teacher, had heard that ships doing oceanographic work frequently send data collecting devices deep into the ocean, so she decided to do a little science experiment with her class.
She had them all sign a Styrofoam mannequin wig head and she took it along with her on her three-week trip aboard the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association ship Hi’Ialakai this past April.
Hi’Ialakai Cdr. Scott Kuester said that because of the extreme pressure deep in the ocean, the gases in the Styrofoam are squeezed out, and the objects shrink.
“We sent her wig head down to Davey Jones' locker and back again,” he said in an e-mail from port at Kure Atoll, the most remote of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. “It came up as a miraculous shrunken head with all her students' names in miniature.”
Kuester said the hands-on lesson, showing the direct relationship between depth and pressure in water, is exactly the kind of experience the NOAA Teacher at Sea program strives to achieve.
“If one girl or boy in those classes is affected by her teaching and grows up to be a marine biologist, a cartographer [maker of maps] or a marine bird specialist, this investment in Melissa's time will be repaid many, many times for NOAA, this country and science and ecology,” he said.
THE LOUDOUN Education Foundation (LEF), which partnered with NOAA last year, hosted a reception last week to honor Fye and Mountain View Elementary School teacher, Jim Jenkins, for their spirit of adventure, said Jennifer Hammond, NOAA Teacher at Sea program manager.
The reception gave the foundation and NOAA an opportunity to thank Fye and Jenkins for the great work they did on their mission and the great job they did incorporating what they learned on the ship into their curriculum, said Liz McMahon, NOAA Teacher at Sea specialist.
The Teacher at Sea program enables teachers from kindergarten through college to sail aboard NOAA
hydrographic, oceanographic or fishery research vessels to work side by side with scientists and ship crew members for up to a month or more.
Since its inception 15 years ago, more than 430 teachers have participated in the program, returning to their classrooms with a deeper understanding of many different aspects of ocean science.
Kuester said the scientists on the Hi’Ialakai were working on a mapping mission in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve and adjacent waters, while Fye was onboard. She is the first and only teacher to sail on the Hi’Ialakai.
DURING HER STAY, she helped scientists map the bottom of the ocean by assisting with collecting and editing the stored data. The mapping process, she said, was an interesting process to watch.
“It’s like mowing the grass, but you’re on a speed boat with sonar equipment on the bottom of it mowing the top of the ocean,” she said.
McMahon said the program’s teachers have always quickly understood what they need to do to help, and that the scientists don’t see them as intrusive, but rather the opposite.
“The scientists love having teachers on board because it reminds them why they’re doing what they’re doing,” she said. “The scientists feel they have another outlet, another audience for what they’re trying to teach people. They appreciate the teachers being there and they get really excited about teaching them what they do.”
Another benefit the scientists get from the relationship is a whole new level of enthusiasm, Hammond said.
“It’s like having a guest come to your house and being able to tell them all the new and exciting things going on as opposed to telling your spouse, who sees it every day,” she said.
Kuester agreed, adding that having a teacher on board also contributes to future project development and education outreach because the NOAA program personnel, scientists and crew are able to gain a better understanding of how the teachers’ students learn, what their learning requirements are and the rigors of meeting those requirements, he said.
That type of information can help the organization mold its education programs and improve their reach and effectiveness.
The symbiotic relationship also gives teachers like Fye, who has never traveled too far outside Loudoun County, a push out of their comfort zone, Hammond said. It’s often a challenging experience for teachers to get used to the rough seas, a community of unfamiliar people and tight living quarters on the research vessels, which are quite different than cruise lines.
NOAA SENDS approximately 30 teachers out to sea each year, about one third the applications it receives each year.
Usually teachers sail during the summertime, and have less interaction with their students, which made Fye’s experience a unique one.
It’s rare for a teacher to sail during the school year, Hammond said, because most principles and school districts won’t allow it. But with LEF’s help and a supportive school administration, Fye was able to sail in April instead of over the summer, while students were still in school.
“It’s much more real for students, if the teacher’s doing it while they’re in school, versus guess-what-I-did-over-the-summer,” Hammond said.
While Fye was onboard, she communicated with her students via e-mail and sent them science questions and homework based on what she was doing at sea. Fye said she used interviews she had with the scientists and crew members to initiate her long-distance classroom discussions.
DAVID ARNOLD, trustee and former LEF president, said the Teacher at Sea program was exactly the kind of supplemental educational opportunity the foundation looks to find for students to get them excited about education and going to school.
He initially read about NOAA in his company’s newsletter and after surfing the organization’s Web site, he decided NOAA had great potential to get students excited about science and involved hands-on. And he was right.
To get the ball rolling for the spring trip, LEF funded the cost of substitute teachers to take Fye and Jenkins’ places while they were at sea. The cost to the foundation’s participation in the program works out to less than $1 per child, Arnold said.
“It’s a relatively modest amount of money to get 47,000 kids exposed to science and oceans through these teachers and training modules,” he said. “It’s so much more effective than reading it or having a teacher lecturing them.” All of the Teachers at Sea have to develop a curriculum based on their experiences that can be implemented by themselves and other teachers as part of the program. Arnold said one of the most positive benefits is that the modules can then be used by teachers in all grades countywide.
Arnold said the teachers pick a topic about oceans or water temperature or anything that fits in with the at-sea research and provide suggested ways to discuss the topics, reference materials and pointers that will lead other teachers toward the appropriate Standards of Learning for that topic mandated by the state of Virginia. The training modules are available to all grade levels countywide, he added.
For instance, Fye now teaches a gifted education program for high learners at Pinebrook Elementary School and plans to use the series of lesson plans she created based on her experience at sea in her classroom this year.
“We study systems all year long. We could study computer systems or highway systems or any type of system. So I’m going to use my scientific exploration to tie my lessons with ocean systems,” she said.
FYE SAID HER favorite part of the trip was going on dive operations with the scientists to help locate and gather various Global Positioning System (GPS) devices laid on the ocean floor which store and collect data such as the changes in water temperature over several years — and to replace these devices with new ones.
“Diving underwater and getting to see in front of me, the coral in all the beautiful colors, the animal aspect of it, being right there in the middle of it and no other people around was pretty memorable,” she said. “It’s amazing how beautiful nature can be, with everything working together in that coral reef ecosystem and the food chain revolving around it.”
As a first time deep-sea diver, the experience was eye-opening.
“I saw humpback whales, giant sea turtles and swam by sharks in their natural ecosystems,” she said. “I was nervous. I know how to swim really well, but that doesn’t matter.”
But the nervousness was worth the numerous stories she’s collected. One of her goals in taking the trip was to set an example for her students by showing them that it’s OK to take risks in their lives and have adventures.
“I wanted to open their eyes to different ways science is used in the real world and show them that you don’t have to be in an office somewhere; you can be out on a ship in the middle of the ocean and do science too,” she said.