There is no better way to learn about the environment than to get out and explore it! However, exploring certain habitats, like our underwater worlds, can be quite tricky. That is why The Wetlands Institute offers Science Education at Sea (SEAS) programs for students in grades 4 through college. The SEAS program is a unique field trip experience, originally developed by former Outreach Coordinator, Travis Davis. The program allows students to learn about their local marine ecosystems while experiencing them firsthand. This three hour, boat-based program allows children to explore the ocean and bay habitats through activities such as crabbing, dolphin watching, fish and invertebrate sampling, and a live plankton lab. The SEAS program focuses on marine biology and combines hands-on, live marine animal interactions with traditional science concepts such as food webs and life cycles. While interaction with live animals is an important component in engaging students, we wanted to dive a little deeper and expand the scientific content of the SEAS program. Utilizing new methods and materials, our goal is to challenge students, allow them to formulate questions, and get them thinking about the bigger picture when it comes to the health and future of our oceans.
To reach our goal, we began by enhancing our most popular activity on the boat, the trawl net tow. A trawl net is used by both research scientists and commercial fishermen to collect marine organisms on the bottom of the sea floor. Students are involved in deploying the net into the water and hauling it back on board. This part of the program is always a huge hit and the students are amazed that they actually get to see what’s living beneath the surface of the water! To expand this activity, in spring 2014 we introduced a biodiversity assessment component to the program. The biodiversity assessment mimics how actual marine biologists analyze the health of a marine habitat. Just like the scientists, students record weather and water conditions and then identify, count and record the specimens collected in the trawl net. While conducting the biodiversity assessments, we have seen students utilize skills such as species identification, math, and team work, while also still engaged in the activity and having fun. The biodiversity assessment will also provide The Wetlands Institute with some useful data and allow us to identify species population trends over time. In time, our goal is to have this biodiversity assessment data available for teachers to use as an educational tool in the classroom.
But wait, we’re not done yet! After the success of the biodiversity assessments, this year we plan on incorporating a water quality component into the SEAS program. During this new activity, students will test and analyze the physical and chemical properties of both bay and ocean water. The water testing will complement the student’s biodiversity assessments, helping to explain why we see specific species inhabiting a certain marine environment. Differences in salinity, temperature, or dissolved oxygen are all big factors in determining how much (or little) biodiversity is present. Water quality testing will also help open discussions on topics that affect students and their community, such as storm water, water treatment, watersheds, marine debris, just to name a few.
It is important to us that the SEAS program continues to be an impactful experience, one that students will remember for years to come. With these enhancements to the program, we hope students will not only have a lasting impression, but will leave the trip feeling empowered to become environmental stewards in their community. Stay tuned as we continue to dive deeper into science education!