Rhode Island teachers learn first-hand about ocean science at sea

October 31, 2022

Twelve Rhode Island educators recently boarded R/V Endeavor, the University of Rhode Island’s 185-foot research ship, for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become part of a scientific team conducting ocean research at sea. 

The educators were selected to participate in the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea (RITAS) program to gain experience as oceanographers. With the help of URI Graduate School of Oceanography professor and associate dean David Smith and ship’s crew and marine technicians, they spent three days at sea deploying oceanographic instruments, collecting sediment samples from a mile deep, studying plankton and analyzing data about the physical properties of the water column.

Teachers prepare to deploy the CTD – a package of instruments that measure conductivity, temperature and depth – from the Endeavor. (Photo: David Smith)

“What we do is show the teachers some of the questions we’re asking at sea and how we go about answering them,” said Smith. “After this experience they have an appreciation for the ocean and the challenges of working there, and can in turn get the kids in their classrooms excited about the ocean.”

Sponsored by the Graduate School of Oceanography, the RITAS expedition is designed to establish partnerships between ocean scientists, researchers and educators who teach in Rhode Island. The research cruise 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. 

Working at sea can present unique challenges not encountered while working in a lab. As the educators learn, it takes a lot of cooperation among scientists, marine technicians and crew during a research cruise.

“I felt our participation was necessary for the voyage to succeed,” said Lynne Towers, a teacher at Saint Philomena School of the Sacred Heart in Portsmouth. “I liked that we felt we were not just guests on the ship, but we were expected to do our part, and abide by the rules as the crew does. It was an amazing experience and the crew couldn’t have been more kind and helpful.”

“It was great to be able to get to see data first hand and make real connections with the science being done,” said Erin Bilbo, a South Kingstown High School teacher. 

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

Trying on the immersion suits (aka the gumby suits) during a safety briefing. (Photo: Catherine Knasas)

“It was eye opening to see how much work and effort goes into collecting data before, during and after the actual deployment of the specialized equipment,” said Lynn Manning, a teacher at the Norwood Elementary School in Warwick. “Just appreciating the engineering that goes into developing the equipment needed to collect samples to support the research, it was awe inspiring for sure.”

Greg Rowe, a high school teacher in Warwick, found the Endeavor’s crew, marine technicians and scientists eager to share their knowledge of life at sea. “They were always willing to talk in-depth about the equipment and how they use the data they collect.”  

As part of the RITAS program, the educators are asked to collaborate – even after they disembark from the Endeavor – and create ocean-themed classroom activities that can be used by teachers throughout the state.

“I loved the connections I made across the state and the new ideas for science lessons that this afforded. There was so much packed into this program, I’ve been sharing different parts of it with different classes and teachers,” said Meghann Warnick, a special education teacher at the Pothier-Citizens’ Elementary Campus in Woonsocket.

“It is rare for teachers to get time to share with teachers from different districts, and hearing about how others teach was so inspiring and affirming,” said Catherine Knasas, a teacher at the Community Elementary School in Cumberland. “Even though I didn’t know anyone coming aboard, we all quickly connected and bonded through our education backgrounds and love of the ocean.” 

Andres Castro, a teacher at Hope High School in Providence, looks forward to future collaboration. “I hope the program can continue building bridges in diverse communities, and also establish sustainable partnerships between researchers and teachers.” 

Participants on the 2022 RITAS cruise were:

  • Erin Bilbo, South Kingstown High School (Wakefield) 
  • Andres Castro, Hope High School (Providence) 
  • Chrissie Demoranville, Robert Bailey Elementary School (Providence) 
  • Eleanor Iverson Neatherly, Lincoln Middle School (Lincoln)
  • Christina Jester, Gallagher Middle School (Smithfield)
  • Catherine Knasas, Community Elementary School (Cumberland)
  • Lynn Manning, Norwood School (Warwick) 
  • Greg Rowe, Pilgrim High School (Warwick)
  • Lynne Towers, Saint Philomena School of the Sacred Heart (Portsmouth)
  • Noelle Walters, Lincoln School (Providence) 
  • Meghann Warnick, Pothier-Citizens’ Elementary School (Woonsocket)
  • Christine Zielinski, Pilgrim High School (Warwick)

To learn more about the RITAS program, please visit the URI Graduate School of Oceanography website