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Playground At Sea

By: ALLISON L BRUCE Of The Post and Courier Staff
Published on: 9/04/01
Page: C 1

For a group of marine science students whose exposure to the ocean was limited to swimming at the beach and recreational boating, boarding the Ferrel was a watershed event. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel is a scientific playground. Winches and pulleys drop sediment grabbers to the ocean floor, and instruments give a quick read of the water's depth, temperature and salinity. Inside, computers process data. Along the wall, microscopes wait to reveal what lies in the latest sediment or plankton sample. Last week, students from Wando High School had a chance to don life jackets and hard hats and get their hands dirty.The students were the first group of high schoolers to go on a research cruise aboard the Ferrel, whose home port is Charleston. Another group of Wando students will go out in October.

College of Charleston Associate Professor Leslie Sautter hopes this is only the beginning. The trip for Wando's marine science students marks the first "At Sea!" trip, complete with a precruise meeting and postcruise data compilation and reporting. She wants the program to grow to include other high schools and other ships. At Sea! is run out of Project Oceanica with support from the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and the NOAA National Ocean Services.

The group of 15 students and two teachers arrived early in the morning to board the Ferrel. The students weren't sure just what to expect even though they had a daylong training seminar the weekend before.

They started with a quick introduction from Sautter and then broke up into three groups. The boat would stop at three locations. At each stop, students would be responsible for a different test or measurement. Also at each station, they would drop off a fish trap that they would pull up on the way back.

First, the Ferrel motored up the Cooper River into brackish water. As the sediment grabber descended to the bottom at that stop, students waited to see what they would collect. Slowly, the Pac-Man-like jaws entered the water. Once it hit bottom, the students began to pull it up. They turned it over and opened it - only to find it was empty. Again they lowered the contraption; again it came up empty. Two other students took a turn at the pulley. When the grabber made contact with the bottom, they gave it a quick tug upward, closing the metal jaws. This time it came up full of sediment. The students sifted and bagged the sediment and then recorded information for a database that will be used by future At Sea! groups. After spending some time upriver, the Ferrel turned toward Charleston Harbor.

Here, some students lowered a metal frame around canisters and tubing - the conductivity, temperature and depth (CTD) meter - to the bottom. As it descended and rose again, the apparatus pumped water through its system and measured the salinity, temperature and depth. The students then lifted the device from the water and attached it to a computer system that graphs all three measurements. These would be used later in the database to compare with the plankton levels other students collected at that site or the sediment another group found at the bottom.

Sautter said the students will be able to see how things change in different environments - how the sediment samples, salinity and plankton they collected varied by location. That, she said, leads them to thinking about the biological, physical, chemical and geological factors of each site. Those factors will become even clearer once the information is entered into the database the students are creating. Future At Sea! cruises will stop at the same sites and build on the database to track how the sites change.

"The most important thing they learn is this is how science works," she said.

The third stop was in open water. The waves rocked the flat-bottomed vessel, and the students staggered along the decks. As clear and calm as the day was, a few fought down mild seasickness. Students towing a large net alongside the boat not only caught the plankton they were aiming for, but also brought up two jellyfish and a small crab. After the creatures were freed, the water was strained into a smaller vial and taken inside to view and place in a sample bag - a plastic baggie with the vital information identifying the sample written on it in permanent marker. Beneath the microscope, small translucent creatures darted and shuffled along under the light. The students took the samples back to class to look at them more closely once they start compiling their data.

Several students, though they may not go into marine science, found that the experience would help them in class. "It gives me a better view of what I'm studying," said Brad Richardson, who spent the day videotaping his fellow students for the school's television station and for a future Web site. "You can look at something on paper all day, but if you go out and look at it in real life, you have a lot better perspective."
Richardson said he hopes the program continues to grow so that other students get a chance to go out on research vessels. Sarah Morgan agreed that having hands-on experience - a chance to pull up sediment from the bottom of the harbor and sift through it - made the trip worthwhile. "You get to see how they find plankton - how they actually do the stuff they do," she said. "You understand it better by doing it."

That's what biology teacher Selina Caparas wanted when she first proposed a trip for students. Caparas took a coastal marine science class from Sautter and wanted to recreate the cruise for a group of students.
"I really like for students to do hands-on as much as possible. It's a great way to apply what they're doing in the classroom," she said. Caparas worked with Sautter to set up the cruise aboard the Ferrel
while she was still a teacher at North Charleston High School. When Caparas transferred to Wando, the program moved with her. She hopes it will grow to include other high schools and other students. For this year's group, the cruise gave the students something they can refer back to during the school year, she said.
"Everything they're learning in marine science from here on out they can apply to this trip," she said.

As the boat returned along its course, the final test involved pulling up the fish traps.
The first trap to come up had stayed in the water the shortest amount of time. As the students and staff dragged it aboard the boat, nothing moved. The only fish in the trap were the same dead ones that went in as bait. A small spider crab was the only addition. The next trap held more promise. Dropped in the harbor, it had been in longer and might have attracted some fish. The boat circled the buoy and orange flag, closing in on the trap. As the buoy came up alongside the boat, however, the line connecting the buoy to the trap wrapped around the Ferrel's rudder. Two crewmen donned masks, flippers and tanks and strapped knives to their calves. After determining what had gone wrong, they detached the buoy and attached the trap line to another rope to pull it up. Slowly, the trap rose out of the water.

As they dragged it onto the deck, both students and teachers alike looked at the dead fish inside. They had lifted another empty trap. Then, a flutter of movement. A single fish struggled in the trap. Students raised their hands and shouted and then gathered around. After an impromptu lesson, the fish went back overboard. The success after a long wait on the second trap raised hopes for the final trap. Though the crew had trouble snagging the trap, it was nothing like the adventure at the previous stop. As the trap came up, however, it was empty. A single large shrimp had made its way into the trap and soon found its way back overboard, as well.

By the end of the daylong trip, students were finding cool spots inside the ship and in the shade to rest their eyes. A few students made their way to the bridge where they monitored the progress of the boat and even had a chance to handle some of the controls.
Though only for a day, the trip gave them a glimpse of an oceanographic research cruise, which can last for weeks or even months. They had a chance to do research, grab samples and create data charts that they expanded on during the following week. Eventually, students will create an oral presentation, a poster of their research, and material for a Web site.

"They're starting to find out what they are learning in school does make a difference and they can put it to practical use," said Rear Adm. Evelyn Fields, director of NOAA Corps and the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. "It's making things more real to them and keeping them interested."

Fields said NOAA is always looking for activities to do with students. The cruise is a good opportunity to help the youths understand the coastal environment and perhaps cultivate an interest that could lead to careers. For at least some of the students, it was just the kind of exposure they needed to point them in that direction. "I now know more about what marine scientists and marine biologists do," said senior Alex Clause. She wanted to go on the cruise to see if she really wants to pursue marine science as a career. "I had so much fun. I could see myself doing something like this."

Allison Bruce covers the Charleston County School District. Contact her at abruce@postandcourier.com or 937-5546.

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