Instilling Enthusiasm For Ocean Science In The Middle School Classroom

—by Catherine Cramer, Staff Writer

WHOI Researcher Alison Macdonald participating in the Ocean Science Education Institute

When researcher Alison Macdonald was in junior high school she was interested in

forestry, and was even thinking of becoming a forestry ranger. Then an actual ranger came to visit her school. His message was, ``Take my advice and don’t become a forest ranger - there’s no money or future in it.’’ Instead, Alison became an oceanographer. And today, she’s trying to undo what was done to her by instilling an enthusiasm for ocean science in middle school students through COSEE-New England programs. ``If you’re really interested in something, then you’ll find a way,’’ said Alison. ``I want to get kids thinking `maybe I can do this, too.’’’

Alison is a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Her research focuses on how water moves, particularly large scale circulation and the transport of heat and carbon - which is of interest to researchers studying climate, since one third to one half of atmospheric carbon ends up in the oceans. She had always wanted to bring some of her experience into classrooms, and previously had visited her daughter’s class in 2nd and 4th grades. `` It was fun going in and talking about what oceanographers do, but I felt like I’d like to get more involved,’’ said Alison. ``It makes you feel great, the kids are really interested, but I was looking for a way to go into a school and tell more than what I do, maybe using instruments or working with other scientists.’’ Then came an email telling her about a COSEE-New England program, Telling Your Story.

Telling Your Story offers scientists an opportunity to learn from educators how to talk to a younger audience about their work. Alison participated in the Telling Your Story workshop in September 2003. ``I got two big things from Telling Your Story,’’ said Alison. ``I met other people at WHOI who were interested in going into classrooms, and I found out that what I’m doing is OK. It gave me confidence. I have a whole lot more to talk about than I did before.’’

From Telling Your Story, Alison found out about another COSEE-New England project, the Ocean Science Education Institute (OSEI), which pairs researchers with school districts to enhance ocean science education. ``Both programs were talking about ocean science education, which I’m interested in,’’ said Alison. ``But the first OSEI blew me away. I went in with some idea that the teachers would tell me what they wanted, but instead there were five or six teachers looking for me to tell them what I could offer, how I could be useful. I was amazed at how much they knew.’’

Alison was put in contact with the New Bedford Global Learning Charter School, which is in one of OSEI’s participating districts. She made a visit there in January of 2005, speaking first to the entire 5th and 6th grades and then to the entire 7th and 8th grades, with about 100 students in each group. The charter school teachers had asked Alison in advance to discuss certain topics that would mesh with their curriculum. She asked students what they thought oceanography was, and then placed herself and her work in the field. She talked about how the atmosphere and the ocean are heated by the sun and how this in turn creates ocean currents and the overturning circulation, illustrating her talk with slides from a research cruise she went on that traveled from Newfoundland down to the equator. She brought bottles of ocean water that had been extracted at differing depths, opened them and let the kids touch the water. She brought in Styrofoam cups that had been squashed in the heavy pressure of the deep ocean. Students were particularly interested to learn how close she had been to the Titanic, and that she was on the same ship that Dr. Robert Ballard had used when the Titanic was found.

``Originally I wasn’t sure if the teachers would be interested in my presentation,’’ said Alison. ``I thought other people’s work seemed more cool, that kids like biology and but I wasn’t sure if they’d like physical oceanography, so I was surprised when they did ask me to visit. It was fun to present to the kids, and totally different from visiting my daughter’s class. Scientists should realize that they will get something out of going into a classroom. I got satisfaction – having the kids’ feedback one-on-one. I like talking to kids, and I’m always amazed at how different they can be.’’

Alison was also asked to give her presentation at the Boston Harbor Educators Conference in December 2004, which she found to be an exciting experience. ``When my daughter was younger I was always amazed at how much teachers knew,’’ said Alison. ``At the conference I met lots of teachers with incredible backgrounds. I’ve also learned quite a bit about the teacher/curriculum relationship, trying to fit what I do into standards. It’s difficult, and there’s lots of trial and error. I’m still learning.’’

Alison sees many benefits to be had from participating in these COSEE-New England programs. ``I’m getting good experience by doing this,’’ she said. ``It’s not just the scientist handing it over but the scientist learning HOW to hand it over. It’s almost selfish. I’ve often thought about being a real teacher and this is an in-between: I get a little of what kids give back without changing careers.’’

``Most people like to talk about what they do and talk to kids but they have a hard time finding time, particularly with funding tight,’’ said Alison. `` Many scientists don’t get involved because they can’t figure out how to get paid for their time. For the National Science Foundation a big seller is broader impacts (pdf file), and I’ve put my experience in Telling Your Story and OSEI into my most recent proposal.’’

Alison is looking forward to continuing her work with COSEE-New England. ``I’m a resource,’’ she said. ``I plan on asking teachers, `Is there anything I can do for you?”’’

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Oregon State Ocean Hydrology
CLIVAR and Carbon Hydrographic Data Office
Telling Your Story
Ocean Science Education Institute
New Bedford Global Learning Charter School
Slides from Alison Macdonald’s presentation
Titanic Discovery Page
Boston Harbor Educators Conference
National Science Foundation
broader impacts (pdf file)