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At Sea!
Through a College of Charleston program, high school students learn about marine biology and geology, conducting research aboard a federal scientific research ship.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Of The Post and Courier Staff

Area high school students have been leaving their classrooms to become scientists for a day on a federal scientific research ship. While soaking up sun and scenery, they learn marine biology and geology research methods by actually doing research rather than reading or hearing about it.
In addition, students learn about jobs aboard a ship, expanding their notions of career options. And let's not forget another perk -enough fresh, finger-licking food prepared on deck to feed a small army, or a hungry group of teenagers.
The experience is Project Oceanica's At Sea, a College of Charleston program in its second year, supported by the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA donates time aboard a ship, the Ferrel, for students to collect and analyze data they'll present to an audience of their choice.
High school science teachers must apply to the program and pass a screening process. Typically, each teacher chooses three students to accompany on a six-hour cruise. Each cruise carries about four groups that size.
Project Director Dr. Leslie Sautter, College of Charleston associate professor of geology, brought along some of her undergraduate marine geology students, who paired up to work with a teacher and students during the cruise and afterward as the students transform their findings into a presentation. As part of their course work, the College of Charleston students created scientific posters about the experience.
On each cruise, the ship makes four stops as the groups conduct research with guidance from NOAA personnel, a College of Charleston graduate student and a plankton expert.
Before the cruise, the students attended a five-hour, pre-cruise workshop at the College of Charleston to learn the skills needed for the research.

After a two-hour fog delay, the Ferrel pulled away from Pier Romeo at the old Charleston Navy base in North Charleston about 10 a.m. Oct. 17. The sun burned up the last patches of fog, and a chill blew across the deck as the Ferrel headed up the Cooper River into brackish water. It was under way on the second of four cruises this fall.
"Get your hands dirty, eat well, learn a lot and have fun doing it," Sautter said. "Those are the primary objectives today."
Groups from Ashley Hall, Porter-Gaud School, Wando and West Ashley high schools each positioned themselves at one of four stations as the Ferrel made its first stop.
One group used a rope to lower into the water a cone-shaped net that forced a water sample into a clear jar. They then took the sample into the cabin and viewed a few drops of it on a TV monitor linked to a microscope. The students identified the plankton they saw, noting the number of different types and the number of each type.
A second group, with help from a crew member operating a crane, lowered into the water a 2-foot-tall, shiny metal device with protruding clear tubes. Among other things, it measured the temperature, depth and salinity as it descended to the bottom and came back up again. The device sent the data to a computer that translated it into a chart for the students to read and analyze.
With that group off the stern deck, another group took its place in front of the crane to drop with a rope a set of metal jaws to the river bottom. When it struck the floor, the students pulled on the rope, closing the jaws around a chunk of sediment. Then they retrieved the sample. They sifted through the wet material, jotting down the texture, color, consistency and any other descriptions. Hands black and brown with sediment, the students separated and labeled some of the material based on its consistency. They took a Ziploc bag full of the wet stuff back to school to dry before measuring the percentages of the different consistencies.
The final group plotted the ship's position on a navigational chart based on longitude and latitude readings. That's how the scientists kept track of exactly where they got their samples. The group also recorded the visible surroundings and the depth of the water relative to the tide.
The ship made three more stops that day, in three different environments, from the river to the harbor to the open ocean. Each group took a turn at each research station.
"The experience takes students through the whole process of scientific data collection, analysis and answering the question: 'What does it all mean?'" Sautter said. "That's when they become scientists."
If scientists didn't try to make sense of what they find and share it with others, then research would be a waste of time, she said.
Before docking back at Pier Romeo, all the groups gathered to share with each other what they found.
Ashaunte Tucker, a 10th-grader at West Ashley High, learned sediment can vary in different locations even though it's in the same body of water.
"I thought it would all be the same," she said.

At Sea is only one part of Project Oceanica, but the program has developed a lot since its beginning. For instance, last year each cruise carried an entire class from one high school, which meant a small number of high schools could participate. This year, students from many more schools can take part and then share their experiences with their fellow students.
Allene Barans, who teaches AP biology at Porter-Gaud, was excited to bring a few students out to sea for the day.
"I like to bring in things from outside of the classroom that are real and tangible," she said.
Sautter is concentrating on fine-tuning the program and plans to make a grant proposal to NOAA next spring when she requests boat time -she'd like NOAA to fund the program.
"Right now we're doing this by seat-of-the-pants funding," Sautter said. She'd also love to get some form of corporate sponsorship for At Sea.
"We're not above that," she said laughing.
Conceptually, the program is on the cutting-edge, giving high school students the opportunity to learn hands-on from real scientists with fancy research equipment.
"Doc (Sautter) didn't so much teach us," said Whitney Talbert, a 10th-grader at West Ashley High. "We actually learned on our own."
The idea is spreading, and Sautter hopes to grow the program.
The Ferrel is being decommissioned after more than 30 years in service.
Ideally, Sautter would like to get a consortium of four-year colleges along the East Coast to purchase the Ferrel and maintain it for educational purposes. Even if that doesn't work out, At Sea will get ship time aboard the Ferrel's replacement vessel, the Nancy Foster.
For more information on Project Oceanica, visit oceanica.cofc.edu.

Contact Adam Ferrell at 937-5581 or at aferrell@postandcourier.com.