The Real-Life Science Adventures of an Online School Teacher
When online middle school and high school science teacher Amanda Dice heard about the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Teachers at Sea program, she knew she was up for the challenge. Having just completed a master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM) through NASA, Amanda was ready to embark on a new adventure she could share with her Connections Academy students.
The Teachers at Sea program was establish in 1990 to give teachers opportunities to learn about the ocean and the environment through real-life research experience. Since then, more than 700 teachers from all 50 states have participated.
Amanda completed the application and was one of the 10 percent of applicants chosen to join a research cruise. Because she lives on the East Coast, Amanda asked for an assignment where she could learn about the waters of the West Coast, and was thrilled when she was matched with the FOCI Juvenile Pollock Survey in the Gulf of Alaska.
After some online training going over the rules of being on a federal research vessel, plus training about specific scientific procedures aboard the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson, Amanda and the research team set sail on August 21, 2017.
We caught up with Amanda recently to talk about her adventure. In the Q&A below, she tells what she learned, and how she uses the experiences to enrich the lessons and extracurricular activities she leads for science students in the virtual classroom.
Q: What were your initial thoughts and feelings before setting sail?
A: I was excited about the adventure of it all, but I was a little nervous about living in such tight quarters with people I hadn’t met yet—but everyone turned out to be great!
Q: What did you do during your cruise?
A: I worked closely with the scientific team, helping them to sort, identify, and measure fish samples. I also helped collect plankton and water samples. The data we collected becomes a part of a large ongoing monitoring program for the Gulf of Alaska and will be used to identify trends in shifting fish population sizes.
Q: What were the most important things you learned through your participation?
A: I learned two important lessons from this experience—just how messy science can be and how to work as a team. Science in the field is very different from a science activity in the classroom. Lots of things can go wrong and the results can be unexpected. I am excited that I can bring this firsthand experience back to my students and create science activities that model a more realistic scientific process.
The second lesson comes from spending such a large amount of time with a small number of people on a ship. I found that all of the team members made an effort to be dependable and maintain a positive attitude, even on those last days when everyone was ready to get back to land. This made the experience enjoyable for everyone and allowed important scientific work to be accomplished without negative distractions.
Q: How did this opportunity help you as a teacher in an online setting?
A: This experience has helped me to understand the kinds of data relevant to evaluating healthy marine ecosystems. Since much of the data that NOAA (and other federal agencies) collects is publicly available online, and being able to readily understand it is a valuable new skill set. Since it is available online, it is a great resource in bringing scientific data directly to the students.
I also met some amazing scientists. Even though they all live on the West Coast, our virtual setting allows me to access them as potential guest speakers and resources.
Q: What are your favorite things about teaching science in an online school?
A: My favorite thing about teaching science and extracurricular activities in an online school is the ability to connect students who have similar interests across the country. I enjoy helping them collaborate on projects or in competitions in the virtual environment. As technology advances and there are more ways to connect online, the opportunities for meaningful online collaboration will increase.
Q: Do you have any great ideas for integrating what you learned into the lessons and activities you develop for your students?
A: I share my experience with students through pictures and by combining these with a lesson about the significance of marine ecosystems. I use publicly available data from a variety of studies done by NOAA on the Gulf of Alaska. Through these resources, I hope to provide an engaging educational experience that gives students a glimpse into the importance of marine ecology in Alaska and how NOAA acts as a steward to monitor and protect these waters.
I will host one of the scientists I worked with as a guest speaker later in the school year. I plan to use this experience, as well as activities that explore careers in the field of marine science, as a way to give students insight into this field for their own career development.
Q: What scientific skills or principles did you apply while participating in the research study?
A: At each location we collected plankton samples with four “bongo nets.” These are circular nets that hang from two metal circles that resemble bongos. We identified plankton collected in two of the nets right on board the ship through a process called rapid zooplankton assessment (RZA). The plankton from the other two nets were preserved and prepared to be shipped to a lab to be identified through a more exacting process.
We used sonar to help us find schools of specific fish. Fish have swim bladders that hold air that help fish stay at a desired depth. These swim bladders are uniquely sized and shaped in different species. Sonar equipment on the ship is precise enough that it can make a good estimate of the kinds of fish the ship is passing over by identifying the unique pattern made by the trapped air in the various swim bladders.
We also used Niskin bottles to collect water samples at different depths. The bottles are large tubes that are lowered into the water vertically. They go into the water with both ends of the tubes open. Once a desired sampling depth is reached, a computer program on board is used to close the ends of the tube, trapping water from that depth inside. There is more information about specific techniques, as well as a picture, on the blog I created as a part of the experience.
Q: Did you use math skills during the research cruise?
A: Many times, the fish sample we collected was too large to count or weigh the fish, or to use to find the length of each fish. To deal with this, we took a random sample. We weighed, counted, and found the length of the fish just in the sample. We then just weighed the remaining fish.
The computer conducted calculations to give an estimate of the total number of fish collected and their weights and lengths. Computers used readings from sensors on equipment under the water to help the crew to improve sampling accuracy. There were also several computers on board that took the raw data we collected and turned it into useful information through calculations.
Q: Would you participate in this type of program again?
A: Yes, I would absolutely participate in this experience again! I plan to apply for the 2019 season. I would love to go to a location with a different ecology to see for myself the similarities to and differences from the Gulf of Alaska.
NOAA asks that teachers create and teach a few lessons to students based on their experience. Once I have completed these, I will be in the Teacher at Sea Alumni Association. Alumni have access to many different resources and programs from NOAA and NASA. I am looking forward to also learning about other kinds of teacher programs I can apply for in the future!
Talented teachers at Connections Academy–supported schools and International Connections Academy private school use a variety of online tools to engage students in experiments and interactive learning. Online school families also bring science to life at home through clubs and by participating in field trips. To find ideas you can enjoy with your students, visit our activity resource pages.
What cool science activities have you done with your family? Share your most successful ideas in the comments.