Forging Connections to Advance Science

August 7, 2010

Students at a Maui school worked on a project with Alaskan students.

"If the future of all world civilization depended on me, what would I do? What would I be?" asked Buckminster Fuller, an inventor and thinker who proposed that we are all responsible for Spaceship Earth. The idea that we are all connected influences our everyday decisions, more so than it did in Bucky's lifetime. Faced with dwindling resources, global warming, and giant oil spills, many ordinary people do think about the future of world civilization. They make connections with others who think similarly. And knowledge grows.

To make such connections vital and to keep them productive requires luck and optimism and work. Fortunately there are numerous organizations with which teachers can get involved to forge connections.

On the island of Maui, intermediate-school teacher Margaret Prevenas has an idea of getting schools in coastal areas throughout the country -- and then, who knows, perhaps worldwide -- to begin sampling ocean water using a series of protocols her students have developed.

Monitoring water quality requires protocols for precise measurement and data collection.Her students have been monitoring local water quality for three years now, looking at water temperature, salinity, turbidity, and pH as well as the amount of plastic particles making their way into the sand. Having built two SeaPerches, Prevenas's students will this year be able to collect samples farther out on the Waihe'e Reef.

But, says Prevenas, "We will only be able to do that at most four times a year." That's not enough to get a true picture of the changes occurring in the ocean, so she's hopeful that other schools will add to the effort.

Her students at Kalama Intermediate School have already made a connection with a school in the Pribilof Islands where fifth-graders will sample the waters in the Bering Sea, maybe using a SeaPerch of their own.

Prevenas's next step will be to get a website active to post information on the students' sampling and their data. Then, "we can communicate," she says.

Through Maui Coastal Land Trust, she's one of the teachers who has received grant money from NOAA's B-WET program to promote environmental and climate-change learning. The grant provides transportation to bring her students to Waihe'e Reef to do water sampling. It also provides help with technology. As Prevenas explains it, "It's going to help us establish a site where the kids who live on Maui will be able to post information using the protocols that my students have established: turbidity, temperature, salinity, acidity, and amount of plastics in the sand."

She's hoping that down the road-maybe a year-other coastal schools from outside the region will do something similar and add to the data. "You can't have too many schools involved in this because the more that are involved, the more dots we can fill in. Scientists cannot be everywhere and that's why God made schoolteachers."

She adds, "It's the whole idea behind Citizen Science."

Students from Maui and the Pribilof Islands put their heads together over a map, a computer, and a SeaPerch.Connections have been important at many junctures in Prevenas's journey to enlarge her students' understanding of the ocean around their island. PolarTREC was instrumental in making a connection between Prevenas and the Pribilof Islands through Teacher at Sea. Nora Deans, the educational outreach coordinator behind North Pacific Research Board was very helpful in that.

NOAA has provided financing at various points so Kushins and Prevenas could meet face to face and "swap lesson plans. This doesn't just happen because we're enthusiastic," says Prevenas. "It happens because we've gotten together at different conferences."

Also SNAME's Susan Nelson, Executive Director of SeaPerch, provided the SeaPerch kits free through the Office of Naval Research's SeaPerch grant.

"You never do it alone," says Prevenas. "You do it with many, many, many other people's help. Without SeaPerch sending out those initial kits we never would have been able to do this."

SeaPerch, which is sponsored and funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is managed by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME). SeaPerch is also supported with funds from the National Defense Education Program (NDEP).

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