Diving into learning

Indiana State faculty and a student have teamed up with a Vigo County middle school to develop hands-on experiences and lessons for a pilot program aimed at helping Indiana middle school teachers incorporate more hands-on marine science lessons in their classrooms.




Indiana State University science professors are taking a page from moms who puree vegetables and mix the nutrition — undetected — into tasty dishes for their children. Only instead of vegetables, it’s physics, chemistry and biology, served in the form of marine science.

“Sometimes when people think about physics or chemistry or biology or geology, it’s just boring old science. Yet, when they think of oceanography, they think of dolphins and whales and sharks and tsunamis — and we can incorporate all branches of science into discussions about these and other aspects of oceanography,” said Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State.

From left, Carolyn Wallace, formerly of Indiana State, Melissa Jordan, a seventh grade science teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Terre Haute, Steffen Wilkinson, an earth science student at Indiana State, and Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State.

From left, Carolyn Wallace, formerly of Indiana State, Melissa Jordan, a seventh grade science teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Terre Haute, Steffen Wilkinson, an earth science student at Indiana State, and Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State.

Added Melissa Jordan, a seventh grade science teacher at Terre Haute’s Woodrow Wilson Middle School: “If you teach them the physics with say, sharks, we’re doing motion, acceleration, all of those formulas. I can say, ‘Well, we’ve got a tiger shark and a great white shark, and his average speed is this ….’ If you approach it like that, you’ve got their attention, and they’re more than likely to stay engaged and struggle through it — as opposed to giving them a worksheet with problems and saying, ‘Let’s get some practice.’”

Rathburn and Jordan recently ventured to San Diego with Carolyn Wallace, formerly an Indiana State faculty member, and Steffen Wilkinson, an earth science undergraduate student at Indiana State.

Their objective was to gather hands-on experiences and develop lessons for a pilot program aimed at helping Indiana middle school teachers incorporate more hands-on marine science lessons in their classrooms. The group is planning to use their experiences and West Coast collaborations to obtain additional funding and then spring boarding the pilot program into a much larger scale.

“We were able to see a number of different things firsthand that would enable a middle school or high school teacher to convey the excitement of science to students,” Rathburn said. “One of the reasons we chose to show them oceanography is because oceanography is very interdisciplinary. If you’re a science teacher and you’re really not so interested in physics, but you like biology, you can still use oceanography and focus on that (biology) aspect. Or you can choose to focus on the physics, chemistry, and/or geology aspects of oceanography.”

For Jordan, the experience was everything she’d hoped for.

“I’ve been on this path of realizing experiential learning is not only for the students, but also for the teachers themselves. I became the learner on this trip. It also reinforced what I do in the classroom,” Jordan said. “I saw things that I had already been teaching, but now I have a picture of that fault line and that hanging and foot wall that I can now share with them. So, you have that story that is more meaningful to you and becomes more meaningful to your students.”

Jordan is no stranger to experiential learning. Last summer, she traveled to Peru with other science teachers from around the country to explore the Amazon; she plans to repeat the trip this summer.

“The experience itself helps those two things — being the learner and having meaningful experiences. Those stories come back and those stories are tied to the science. Students, who hear stories that come from a personal place, tend to remember it better,” she said. “The students realize, ‘This is great. This actually happens. This isn’t something that’s just in the textbook.’”

Overweight luggage

The group from Terre Haute tours the desert with Warren Smith, of the University of San Diego, who grew up in the desert.

The group from Terre Haute tours the desert with Warren Smith, of the University of San Diego, who grew up in the desert.

During the trip, the group met with University of San Diego faculty and toured the Anza-Borrego Desert, where they visited geological sites, including Fossil Canyon. They also explored Canyon Sin Nombre where they encountered geological features such as cross-cutting strata and rock folds, and the landscape’s flora and fauna.

Why the desert, you may ask? Well, the desert, at one time was under water. Later in the trip, group members were able to connect the marine fossils they saw there with the living counterparts in the ocean, Rathburn said.

“I’m a geology major and got to see a lot of stuff that we learn about in class but just can’t see around here. All the geology around here is pretty much limestone. Out there, there’s a lot of different stuff you can see,” Wilkinson said.

The group journeyed to the La Jolla area, where they saw the protected salt marsh at Torrey Pines Beach, a cliff face and fossils. When they encountered evidence of ancient sea level changes in the cliff, Rathburn said he “was able to explain it right there, using beach sand as a chalkboard.”

“On the beach, we saw lots of different types of seaweed,” Rathburn said. “To this group, it was very, very different. ‘What is that?’ That’s seaweed. ‘Well, what is that?’ That’s seaweed, too. And here’s part of the kelp forest. ‘What’s that big bulge?’ That’s part of a system to help keep it floating. We were able to see these things without having to snorkel or dive.”

Another adventure took them out on a Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel, which trawled samples from along the bottom and in mid-water, collecting a wide variety of strange deep-water creatures. They worked together with Scripps researchers and graduate students, processing samples, obtaining sea water for future analyses and profiling the ocean for conductivity, temperature and depth. Each procedure was a hands-on opportunity for the group.

The fact the group’s luggage was “way over weight” from samples they collected was a good indicator of the trip’s success, Rathburn said.

For Wilkinson, it reinforced his interest in geology.

“Most all the other sciences are very exacting, there are rules you stick to, especially physics and chemistry,” Wilkinson said. He enjoys the scientific detective work and the unknowns of geology.

“With geology,” he said, “you have to formulate a hypothesis with stuff you can’t actually see. You have to use clues to figure out what’s going on deep underground and what happened long ago.”

At Birch Aquarium, which is the public outreach center for Scripps Institution of Oceanography, they paid extra attention to the hands-on displays, such as touch tanks, a shark eggs exhibit and a kelp forest with indigenous creatures. The group hopes to recreate these types of teaching tools by developing a hands-on, mobile aquarium system for summer science camp — and beyond. Together with Indiana State students, they plan to travel to local schools with the mobile aquarium system to help students and teachers understand marine ecosystems, and to appreciate the benefits of using aquariums and terrariums in the classroom.

More than just science

The Pacific Ocean is seen during a research trip to San Diego by Terre Haute educators, who were gathering hands-on experiences to develop lessons for a pilot program aimed at helping Indiana middle school teachers incorporate more marine science lessons in their classrooms.

The Pacific Ocean is seen during a research trip to San Diego by Terre Haute educators, who were gathering hands-on experiences to develop lessons for a pilot program aimed at helping Indiana middle school teachers incorporate more marine science lessons in their classrooms.

Most of the seventh grade curriculum is environmental and life science, Jordan said. Developing an oceanography component for middle-schoolers will pay dividends for years to come, she predicts.

“They get a better picture of what science is about. Earth science is not just a single unit. Earth science is impacted by the laws of physics; it’s impacted by the environment that is in that specific place and the animals that are there,” Jordan said. “They start to get a better picture of that when you have that kind of approach, that everything is connected in some way. Then, they see where the careers come into play.”

Speaking of careers, Jordan said traveling with and meeting different types of educators — scientists, researchers and professors — allowed her to bounce ideas off them and get a different perspective.

“It was an awesome experience. I’m glad they involved me in the project,” Jordan said. “It was cool to share many aspects of my job with professors and grad students. They were surprised that the things I’m teaching, they’re reinforcing in the college classroom. It was good for them to hear we’re trying to give students those basics science concepts that they’ll learn on a deeper level in college.

“It was really renewing for a teacher who is passionate about her job,” she added. “I’m part of something bigger. It makes me want to find ways to make my experiences even more meaningful.”

Unless parents have the resources to take their children to the beach or buy them books and magazines about different ecosystems, Jordan’s students don’t get that exposure. Oceanography, therefore, is “exotic” and helps keep their attention, she said.

“I would love for all of them to be some sort of science-based career, but if they come in, at the beginning of seventh grade hating science, and they leave having a huge interest in science, then I feel like I’ve done my job,” she said. “Many of them struggle with science, because it’s hard. They need to realize that even though it’s hard, they can do it.”

Introducing her students to new worlds is something she’s used to — take for instance, the Madagascar hissing cockroaches that her son bought and then tired of, so she brought them to the classroom.

After learning about the cockroaches, some students still decide the critters aren’t for them, but others take them home (with parental permission, of course). They’re easier to care for than dogs, Jordan said.

“It’s anything weird or exotic — when we understand it, that ‘Eww’ becomes ‘Eww, but they’re really cool’ because you’ve learned why they look eww and why they’re so creepy,” she said. “I want them to not fear things they don’t understand. Don’t assume things that look scary are scary.”

As a middle school teacher, Jordan has a classroom full of students, who are caught in the life phase between being a child and a young adult. So, of course, the cockroach lesson has more far-reaching implications than just science, she said.

“At this age, I feel like they’re the most impressionable. They’re going through a lot chemically because of puberty, but they’re trying to discover who they are,” she said. “If you impress upon them that they’re an awful child or you teach in a negative way — which I had happen to me when I was going to school — it impresses something upon you that you can turn into, if you don’t know the difference.

“Even though I’m teaching science, I feel like I’m preparing them for life.”



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