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On Board for Hands-On Ocean Learning

The excitement of ocean study provides an inviting way to generate renewed interest in science

ROGER PINNICKS, an inquisitive high school teacher from Worthington, Ohio, says he had never seen a whale. But that was before he had a Sea Experience.Prabha Papali, a native of India and a middle-school science teacher in Brookline, Mass., had never sailed before she had a Sea Experience. What can turn five weeks of a science teacher's summer into a rendezvous with oceanography? A Sea Experience. This graduate-level course for science teachers in middle and high schools is making waves in the academic community. Sea Experience is one of the latest offerings of the Sea Education Association Inc. (SEA), a nonprofit organization based in Woods Hole, Mass. SEA aims to enlighten students and adults of all ages on the wonders and importance of the world's oceans. SEA is best known for its Sea Semester and Maritime Semester programs, which, since 1971, have helped several thousand undergraduates understand the ocean and science. Providing six weeks on land and six weeks at sea, SEA's year-round college programs regularly attract students from all over the United States as participants. These courses, and SEA's other programs for adults, high school students, and now teachers, balance theoretical instruction with hands-on training. "They have been and continue to be the best program of their kind," explains Dr. John Heiser, director of the Shoals Marine Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell is one of 154 colleges and universities that accept SEA programs as undergraduate credit. Drawing on its 20 years of working with college students, SEA is now carving a niche for itself in the area of teacher enhancement. Started in 1988, and modeled after the college programs, Sea Experience provides three weeks of study on land and two weeks at sea. In the process of learning about oceanography, teachers also increase their knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and geology. A desire to know more about the ocean and oceanographers sparked the interest of Mrs. Papali, a teacher at The Park School in Brookline, Mass., who completed her Sea Experience in August. "I have learned so much about the ocean that I didn't know before...," she said in a recent phone interview. "It's easy to teach from books without really understanding what it means. You really have to experience it." Papali also returned from the course even more environmentally aware. "It's sad when you go out to the beautiful ocean and you see all this plastic floating around. It made me angry, really, to see tons of plastic floating around where there is no human being to be seen." Hands-on learning is the hallmark of all SEA programs, including Sea Experience. Participants are divided into groups that take turns standing watch on the deck, performing experiments around the clock in the ship's lab, furling the sails, scrubbing the deck, preparing meals, and steering the ship. Running the ship is no small task on either of SEA's vessels - the 125-foot-long SSV Westward, or the 134-foot-long SSV Corwith Cramer - but there is plenty of time for gathering data, experimenting, and interacting. Mr. Pinnicks, a self-proclaimed landlubber who has taught biology for 30 years, says: "The biggest thing I'd ever been on was an 18 1/2-foot motorboat on Lake Erie, trying to catch walleyes, and all of a sudden I was on a tall ship 125 feet long." Pinnicks, who teaches at Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, Ohio, says he chose to take the course last year to help him in teaching a new science curriculum that combines biology and earth sciences. He was left with many impressions - the blue-green bioluminescent glow of plankton, the hordes of jellyfish caught in the ship's experimental nets, and more - that made the ocean seem less foreign and more friendly. Today, Pinnicks continues to utilize his newfound knowledge from Sea Experience. He says he shares with fellow teachers information about bioluminescence, "critters" that live down in the dark zone of the sea, and experiments performed while at sea, a few of which have been adapted to the classroom. A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the primary source of funding for Sea Experience. Dr. Susan Snyder, who heads up NSF's section for networking and teacher preparation, participated in an abbreviated version of Sea Experience last year. She praises the program, but observes that other science disciplines, like astronomy, could be included. She also says that there are further ways SEA could integrate the relationship of sailing to physics and mathematics. Papali says that participating in a Sea Experience session is "hard work," but adds, "I not only survived it, but I enjoyed it."

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