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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Educators become oceanographers-in-training

Aboard ocean research ship for several days, they get a taste of science at sea

Teachers who recently participated in URI’s Teachers at Sea
Rhode Island teachers who recently participated in URI’s Teachers at Sea are shown donning immersion suits aboard the 185-foot research ship the R/V Endeavor. Shown in the foreground, left to right, are: Beth Bracato, Exeter West Greenwich Junior High School; Bernadette Durkin, JJM Cumberland Hill Elementary School; and Lynne Butler, marine technician. Photo by Kyle Sidlik

The water 110 miles south of Rhode Island is a beautiful translucent blue-green, with bits of sargassum weed drifting north on the Gulf Stream from the Sargasso Sea. 

It was hot during the first days of August, and despite it being hurricane season, the skies were blue and the waters calm.

A group of eight schoolteachers traveled here aboard the R/V Endeavor, the University of Rhode Island’s 185-foot research ship, as part of the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea program, to get experience as oceanographers. 

With the help of Oceanography Professor David Smith and several deckhands and marine technicians, they deployed oceanographic instruments, collected sediment samples from a mile deep, studied plankton and analyzed data about the physical properties of the water column.


“Every summer I like to do something related to my curriculum that I can learn from and can use to explain things to my students about what real scientists do,” said Beth Brocato, a science teacher at Exeter-West Greenwich Middle School, and a Rhode Island College graduate. 

“I can now show them and tell them that I was there when we put that device down in the water and collected that data. Everything we did is applicable to my classes.”

Sponsored by the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, the three-day expedition is designed to establish partnerships between ocean scientists, researchers and teachers who live and teach in Rhode Island. 

It is funded by the Rhode Island Endeavor Program, a state-funded effort to provide URI researchers and local educators with access to the scientific and educational capabilities of an ocean-going research vessel.

In addition to the hands-on science, the teachers also learned about the ship’s operations and the physical aspects of working at sea.

“Our main objective is to try to get teachers to understand how science really happens at sea,” said Smith, who also serves as associate dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography. “Working at sea is a lot more difficult than working on land, and the variability of the ocean itself somewhat limits what you can do and observe about it.

“We also want to let people around Rhode Island know about this incredible vessel that has served as an ambassador for the state for so many years,” he added. “By bringing educators aboard, the experience gets into the classroom, and if their students are anything like my kids, they’ll be talking about it over dinner.”

Burrillville Middle School science teacher Pat Lapierre, also a Rhode Island College graduate, said that everything she learned aboard ship applies to the lessons she teaches during the first few months of the school year.

“It’s given me a huge amount of background knowledge, especially working with equipment and science safety,” she said. “And it’s also providing me with things to make my teaching entertaining to my students. It’s given me a bag of tricks of examples —pictures, data, scientists — to keep my students engaged.”

At St. George’s School in Middletown, Corey Cramer teaches high school English, including a course on maritime literature. He used his time at sea to think about the perspective of the scientists and crew.

“Ships throw different people together from different worlds and different backgrounds, but we were all there for some semblance of the same purpose,” he said. 

“I want to ask my students what the shipboard experience does to time — the ship is constantly moving, we went to bed in one place and woke up 80 miles away, different people are on different schedules. I’m asking my students to consider how different concepts of time apply to literature.”

The experience aboard the Endeavor was not just useful to teachers in the upper grades, however. Several teachers of early elementary students found the program equally beneficial.

Cynthia Sime, who teaches kindergarten students in Spanish as part of a dual language program at West Kingston Elementary School, said that it’s important for teachers at all grade levels to be well-rounded and informed about important issues.

“I need to have that knowledge when I talk about the ocean. I need to know the background and the science, even for kindergarten,” she said. “People don’t think kindergarteners do science, but we do as much as the fifth-graders do. So if I have the background and passion and experience like I got from this program, I can bring it to my students.”

Second-grade teacher Amy Fratantonio agrees. “Second-graders can get it,” she said of her Richmond Elementary School students. “They’re really sponges; they’re up to the challenge. And they can grasp the concept of how important this work really is. They’re so ready for it.”

Educators interested in learning more about the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea Program should contact Maryann Scholl at 401-874-6500 or mscholl@uri.edu.

The University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) is one of the world’s premier oceanographic institutions. Founded in 1961, the GSO has built a reputation for excellence in deep water oceanographic research, coastal planning and management, sustainable fisheries and monitoring the health of Narragansett Bay. With operations worldwide, GSO research, education and outreach programs train the next generation of scientists and policymakers, while ensuring Rhode Island’s K-12 teachers and students gain an appreciation for the importance of ocean science through a variety of hand-on programs.  

On Nov. 6, Rhode Islanders will vote on referendum No. 2, a $70 million higher education general obligation bond that includes $45 million for upgrades to the Narragansett Bay Campus. If approved, proceeds from the bond will be used to improve the GSO’s pier (required to accommodate a newly awarded Regional Class Research Vessel from the National Science Foundation valued at more than $100 million), construct a 20,000-square-foot Ocean Technology building, a Marine Operations building and fund other necessary improvements to campus facilities.