- Associated Press - Sunday, April 16, 2017

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - Emily Sprowls didn’t have a great interest in sharks three weeks ago - but that changed after spending 14 days on a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Harmony School teacher just returned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Teacher at Sea program. Teachers board research vessels for two-week expeditions, in the hope that the trip will give them hands-on field work experience to take back into their classrooms.

This year, 280 educators applied. Sprowls was among the 30 who were accepted.

She is bringing back pictures, stories and a few artifacts to share with her high school-aged classes at Bloomington’s Harmony School. She is also incorporating the data she helped collect about sharks into her classes, letting her students dive into real scientific data about the ocean’s toothier residents.

“I’ve taught the watershed issues and the Gulf of Mexico before, and I never talk about sharks, but it’s sort of a no-brainer,” Sprowls said.

“Sharks are really cool. Kids like sharks. It’s a great hook.”

Teacher at Sea

Sprowls had known about the Teacher at Sea program for years, which began in 1990, but never felt she had the time to participate until this fall. Harmony allows teachers to have assistant teachers on a rotating basis. This year, it was Sprowls‘ turn, and she knew she would be leaving her class in good hands while she was gone.

On March 20, she climbed aboard research vessel Oregon II and became an honorary crew member.

Teacher at Sea chooses participants largely on how well they think an applicant will bring their experience back to their classrooms. Making the ocean relevant is particularly important if the teacher comes from a landlocked state, where some students may have never seen the sea. Jennifer Hammond, the program’s director, said Sprowls‘ application impressed the selection team with her broad reach at the school, where she teaches all levels of high school students and sponsors the oceanography club.

“I think her understanding of making that connection and talking about that was part of the reason we selected her,” Hammond said.

Like all teachers in the program, Sprowls kept a blog throughout her voyage so students could follow her adventures. She also collected questions from Harmony students of all grade levels. She answered a few in each of her posts, as well as documenting what the crew had been up to that day, giving students a firsthand account of how exciting - and how grueling - life as a scientist on a research vessel can be.

Sprowls functioned as a member of the crew, working a 12-hour shift from noon to midnight and bunking with one of the research scientists in a tiny cabin the size of her bathroom. During the day, she helped to bait hundreds of hooks on a mile-long fishing line, which the crew dropped to see what they could catch at different depths in the gulf.

“I got lucky with the sharks,” she said jokingly. “I could have ended up on the plankton cruise.”

When researchers pulled a shark up, they would record the species, weight, length and the depth at which it was found, based on which hook it had latched onto. Some sharks came more quietly than others. Sprowls recounted on her blog that a blacktip shark - about 1.4 meters long, or 41/2 feet - took a snap at researchers trying to wrangle him. The biggest shark they hauled aboard was a bull shark, which Sprowls estimated was around 6 feet long.

Some hours were spent hauling line, wrangling sharks, recording data and baiting the hooks with squid to start all over again. Others were spent watching the waves, making sure no pods of dolphins came to investigate the hooks, and waiting until it was time to look at the next catch.

But even those quiet moments were full of opportunities to observe. Sprowls said the color of the water changed drastically as the boat wove in and out of the plumes of river water feeding the gulf. She said she could see a definite difference in the kinds of marine life they caught in different areas. Some of the differences were caused by the natural depth and temperature of the water, but some of it was caused by the flow of nutrients and pollutants from the rivers. That gave her an understanding beyond what she could see in the data.

Classroom application

As she teaches in her ecology class, the factors affecting the local watershed have a direct impact on the gulf. The Wabash River flows into the Ohio River, which joins the Mississippi, which flows into the gulf.

“The issues that the gulf faces are directly linked to our farm land, our land use, our construction, our erosion. It all goes there,” she said.

The other skill she wants students to master is the process of analyzing raw data, which real scientists do on a daily basis. It’s important for students to understand how to collect, analyze and make meaning from the numbers, Sprowls said. Knowing that it is real data, collected by someone they know on a real research mission, makes it more immediately interesting and relevant.

On Thursday and Friday, she showed students the tags researchers would attach to the sharks to track them.

Next semester, she hopes to weave the data from the expedition into her ecology class and use it on a grander scale. Hopefully, she said, students in the future will be able to build projects around the data she has amassed, learning how the oxygen levels, salinity and temperature of the water directly impact the kinds of sharks that swim through those waters at varying depths.

Because while studying plankton can be interesting, Sprowls wants her students to experience science that has a little more of a bite.


Source: The (Bloomington) Herald Times, https://bit.ly/2o1HAie


Information from: The Herald Times, https://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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