When The Classroom Lacks Walls

How do you see to it that your classroom studies are authentic?  I’m a fan of immersion.  For the past decade my Midwestern Marine Biology class has included a week long field study to the coral reefs and mangrove communities of either The Bahamas or the Florida Keys.  This field study is conducted with chartered sailing yachts as a base of operations.  This allows the maximum amount of time on and in the water.  Many of my students make their first trip to any ocean as a member of this class.  In fact, many over the years have even made their first trip aboard an airplane as a result of this study.  Whether or not they move on to study marine biology as a career, as surprisingly large percentage actually do, there’s no doubt that building rich background knowledge about the world in which we live is an overall win.

If you choose to view this set of 270 photos via the slideshow above, be sure to select the “full screen” option.  However, if you want the full educational perspective, go back to view the images as they appear on the Flickr set itself.  Here, you will find rather involved descriptions and discussions about the content contained in many of the images.  Many of these photos will serve as open starting points for further connections with the community of marine biologists who can continue to inform our inquiries.  You’ll find images of organisms rarely photographed as well as discussions of questionable identifications for further study.

For the past ten years we have journeyed to the Andros Bank/barrier reef off the Eastern coast of Andros Island in The Bahamas.  Image sets from our previous two field experiences can also be found on Flickr here and here.  For many reasons, we switched our study site to that of the reefs and mangrove communities of the Florida Keys reef tract.  This switch instantly provided the ability to make direct comparisons of these two areas.  While the coral communities of the Florida Keys are no doubt less pristine than those of the Andros reef, there is still a wealth of life to study.  In fact, for a course of this nature we were able to observe equally as many elements of these amazing communities in Florida.  Furthermore… since every day on the ocean is different, we were lucky this year to be in the midst of several localized blooms of organisms we were never able to encounter in The Bahamas.  We swam with gangs of By-The-Wind Sailors and dodged many a Portuguese Man o’ War.

Lauren collects reef fish species data

If it were feasible, I dream of a course like this where students begin a year of study with a field experience like this one…  then spend a year studying, only to return to the reef in the Spring to make connections, etc.  Though perhaps not economically feasible, I’ve learned enough in the past 18 years of classroom education to know that when I allow students to make connections first… before I ever open my big mouth…  that engagement and understanding ultimately emerge.  There is no doubt that a second visit to such an overwhelmingly busy and vibrant ecosystem would allow a clarity of understanding unlike what we are currently able to do.  Always asking for more, aren’t I?  To tell the truth, my students and I are more than fortunate to be a part of a school district that values risk-taking and innovation whenever possible.  In today’s educational environment, this is far…  far from the norm.  For without this support, we’d still be learning marine biology secondhand from Missouri.  In my mind, I am constantly imagining ways to make all courses of study include a live component where learning about real life by proxy is a thing of the past.

SaintJoe H2O

For more on this program, check out our classroom network on the Ning platform.  Much has been said of Ning’s recent move away from providing totally free networks.  One thing I can say for certain from where I sit today is that whatever the cost (within reason) I’ll pay to keep this network alive.  We have reaped countless benefits from the collaborative environment it provides in a very open way.  We gain from sharing our work publicly for a real audience.  We gain from the ability to easily aggregate all of the things we bring in to examine… and all of the things we continue to create.  But most of all, we gain from the ability to create a seamless and persistent network of people from student to former student, from expert to author, in facilitation of our learning.  In short, our students never leave us.  Several of our former students now working in or finishing up PhD work in the field stop by to share what they are doing and check up on the latest in our world.  There is continuing authentic value in that.  I’ll pay for that with pleasure.  In fact, I’m betting that I’ll be able to pay for that for less than the cost of a single textbook per year.


High school science is all wet

Sean Nash asked me if I’d step in for him this week. He’s a mensch, and I happen to be off this week, so I said yes. We both write about similar things, but from different angles. I’m on my best behavior here–so I’ll save my opinions on vaccines, fluoride, God, and Higgs bosons for another day….

An osprey, first one of the season, hovered over me while I was fishing this afternoon. It looked down at me, I looked up at it. 400 hundred years ago, on this same shore, an old Kechemeche man stared up at an osprey, and it stared back at him. Our story has changed. The osprey’s has not.

I think the Kechemeche had a better story than ours. In our story the osprey had nothing to share with me. I’ll never know, since their story is now dead. I know this much—the osprey was aware of me on a late afternoon. The tide was rising. The sun felt warm on my face.

There’s a tension between what we know, what we can know, and what’s unknowable. Teaching what we know seems to be the least controversial. Teaching what’s unknowable should not be a function of science teachers in public schools, but distinguishing between what’s knowable and what’s not, well, that’s science.

Why is water wet? Why does my hand get wet when I hold it briefly over a lit grill? Why does water cling to the side of my glass?

That hydrogen bonds form between water molecules, that organic fuels have electrons ripped off by oxygen to form water, and that water molecules cohere to charged surfaces are good enough answers to pass high school science.  Reciting them without grasping that they are models of reality, myths, stories of a special sort, is to give science idolatry it does not warrant.

Science uses models, imaginary constructs, to piece together the world. The world (in science) means the stuff we can sense, directly or indirectly, or logically (and rationally) infer from what we sense.

If a child does not grasp the idea that the constructs of science are, in a real sense, stories, myths framed by specific parameters, the child will see science as facts, tidbits of truth, nuggets of knowledge. Trivia.

And we teach it as such. We trivialize science.

Why  is water wet? What does it even mean to be wet?

I spend a few messy moments in class asking my lambs to do a simple task. Take a handful of peat moss, toss it in a beaker, and wet it. What happens?

The lab benches get messy and wet, but the peat moss mostly stays dry. Why? Why does water roll off wax paper but sticks to cotton?  Why is water wet?

Now the question is not so silly. (Alas, it does not make my students any more likely to dive into the chemistry of water, but at least they have an idea what “wet” means.)

Next question. Why does my hand get moist when I hold it briefly over a flame?

“Simple, Dr. D! You sweat!”

I grab a cool beaker and flame the outside of it with a propane torch. It “sweats.”  I flame the metal faucet pipe—it immediately fogs up. Where does the water come from?

I could show them this equation all day long:

C3H8 + 5 O2 —> 3 CO2 + 4 H2O

I interpret it, which helps a bit:

Propane + oxygen => carbon dioxide + water

Seeing water rise from flame still startles me, every time I do this. Despite my training, or maybe because of it, I forget that chemistry is descriptive, not prescriptive. We put together the story after we gather what we see.

You cannot learn science as you would learn truths, or dogma, or religion. We see the shadows, then we make up the story. The story, however, must make sense. It must give us a way to grasp the shadows, to predict what the shadows will do next.errant horseshoe crab

The tide rises, the tide falls, no matter who tells the story, no matter what the story says.  Until the child can see the osprey, the water, the tides, the stories cannot make sense, no matter how scientific they sound, no matter how hard she studies.

~Michael Doyle