Summer learning with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

Science and summer fun are not necessarily subjects that students naturally would group together. But, Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR takes advantage of the state’s coastal waters, out-of-school time, and its groundbreaking science to open the doors to unique opportunities that change perspectives and engage young minds.

“Getting exposed to this type of trip is huge,” said Vera Delgado, a counselor with Rhode Island Educational Talent Search (ETS). “Not that many kids go into science, so the earlier we introduce them, the better.”

As Delgado spoke, she observed a group of her students wading in the waters off Fort Getty in Jamestown, nets in hand, scooping through the ebb and flow of a gentle tide to see what might be swimming beneath the surface.

ETS — funded through the Community College of Rhode Island by a grant from the US Department of Education under the Office of Postsecondary Education TRIO Programs — provides free help to about 1,000 students in grades 6-12 at 11 urban middle and high schools who want to complete high school and enroll in a post-secondary institution.

Filter feeders
Andrea Drzewianowski gets the group ready to conduct a filter feeder experiment with mussels.

Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR partners with ETS throughout the year to give students Hands-on Science Experiences, including experiments at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus and campus labs of EPSCoR partner institutions.

During the summer months, when time is ample and weather permits, Tim Pelletier, EPSCoR education and outreach coordinator, adds in such features as a tour of the Inner Space Center at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography and a trip to Fort Getty for exploration in the salt marshes and intertidal rocky zones.

One recent daylong adventure saw ETS students conducting filter feeder experiments with mussels and learning about sea star wasting disease at the Bay Campus aquarium facility. At the Inner Space Center, Brian Kennedy, NOAA Corps officer, brought students deep under the sea to view oceanographic exploration in real time and talked about the many disciplines that come together to make research possible.

According to Kennedy, of the 45 people working on a research vessel, only two are scientists. The rest, he said, range from engineers and computer programmers to cooks who feed the crew.

At the Inner Space Center, against the backdrop of a live feed from the ocean floor, Brian Kennedy, NOAA Corps officer, talks about the vast, unexplored regions of the ocean and the many career opportunities available on board a research vessel.

“Ninety-five percent of the ocean is unexplored,” Kennedy said, as students gazed at the underwater life in the video feed shown on a large screen. “Every time we go out, we see a new species. There are creatures down there we had no idea existed.”

Martin Middle School teacher Cheryl Tavares noted, “It’s amazing to see all of the different lines of work. For the kids, it’s great to hear that science is not just guys in white lab coats.”

After a seaside picnic lunch at Fort Getty, URI Ph.D. student Gordon Ober urged the youngsters to dig into the muck and sift through the water to see what they might find. Assisted by Danielle Duquette and Andrea Drzewianowski, both with the EPSCoR Core Marine Science Research Facility, the crew found snails, fish, jellies, crabs, and even an eel that buried itself tail first in the sand.

As they explored, Ober wove in details about how the ecosystem worked and described the delicate coexistence of creatures, asking questions and prompting the students to think back to what they had learned in the classroom.

Pelletier said the Hands-on Science trips hold significant value in several ways. The students gain insight into the skills and education they need as well as the practical application of what they learn in school.

Wearing waders, ETS students drag a seine net through the water of the salt marsh to get a glimpse of what lives in the ecosystem,

The interaction with graduate students like Ober gives them exposure to college students and makes higher education accessible, showing what pathways are available. Hearing from someone like Kennedy brings to life varied disciplines and professional opportunities they may never have considered.

“It’s also important to interact with the students during the summer months, when they are not engaging in educational activities every day,” Pelletier said.

He pointed to the research that indicates extended learning time can enhance opportunities for disadvantaged youths, who are less likely to be exposed to educational resources outside of the academic year.

“The Hands-on Science trips engage the kids in active learning,” said Pelletier. “Not only does that make them less likely to fall behind, but we may grab their interest and set them on a path to study and find a career in a STEM field.”

Story, video and photos by Amy Dunkle