Students discover an endless ocean of possibilities

Fort Getty hands-on science experience
A Times2 Academy student walks along the beach at Fort Getty. For more photos, see below the story.

Hands-on science stokes interest in marine life & ecosystems of the Bay

The Times2 STEM Academy sixth graders stepped out of the yellow school bus and onto the crushed white shell parking lot at Forty Getty, on the northwestern shore of Jamestown, RI.

“Miss, Miss!” the students clamored, asking their teacher what was covering the ground. “What is this?”

Later, as she watched her charges scamper along the rocky intertidal zone, buckets and nets in hand as the Bay’s waters gently lapped the shoreline, Times2 math teacher Daria Baccari reflected, “They didn’t know what the shells were.”

Although the coast sits less than an hour’s drive away for most Ocean State residents, the wonders of the sea remain unknown and unexplored by most Times2 students, who, Baccari said, typically grow up without experiencing life beyond city boundaries.

Throughout the school year and during the summer months, Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR provides unique opportunities through Hands-on Science Experiences and exposure to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

“Our intention is to show these students who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise to engage hands-on with STEM activities that align with their classroom curriculum,” explained Tim Pelletier, RI NSF EPSCoR education, outreach and diversity coordinator. “Through these experiences, they learn not only about the science — the marine ecosystem and the impact of human behavior — but also the possibilities that STEM education and careers provide.”

Anthony Rabaiotti, a mentor with the East Bay Educational Collaborative, joined both trips to observe the lessons and activities led by students from the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography through the Office of Marine Programs.

On the first day, Clara Smart and Kira Homola, respectively URI GSO ocean engineering and biochemistry students, guided an exercise to highlight engineering with a focus on instrumentation for oceanographic research. Instructed to close their eyes, walk a certain number of  steps, stop, turn and walk back, the youngsters got a firsthand idea of complications encountered in autonomous navigation as it might be applied to a vehicle, robot or other platform.

The activity led to a discussion about underwater navigation and how the principal used for oceanic vehicles is similar to how animals use echolocation, or the use of sound echoes to locate and identify objects.

The next day, a second group of youngsters reached into the water and turned over rocks, seeking sea creatures and shells in a scavenger hunt under the instruction of GSO physical oceanography student Kellen Rosburg. Rabaiotti motioned toward the excitement, saying the experience gave the Times2 students an unparalleled understanding of research not afforded in the classroom.

“It’s important to have the hands-on component,”  said Rabaiotti. “It’s very good for them to see science in action. They get to see that scientists are real people. And, it encourages investigation.”

Jane Brell, who teaches social studies and the life science at Times2 Academy, said she was struck by the intensity of the students’ engagement. One boy, Frankie, bent over the water, his face immersed, using his sunglasses as goggles. Suddenly, he reached down and grabbed, coming up with a hermit crab.

“There were many finds that morning, but the most wonderful to see was the total involvement by students who live in the city and rarely, if ever, visit the shoreline,” Brell said.

After the trip, Brell rounded up observations from her students. They told her:

  • “We should go there every day! I liked looking for different kinds of creatures in the water. I like the way the place looked, it was nice and clean and very pretty.”
  • “I think the trip was very inspiring to some kids because you were able to find living things that you never knew existed in that type of environment, especially because it was really rocky!”
  • “My favorite part is when we were finding the crabs and going in the water to grab them!”
  • “I learned a lot more about fish than I ever learned before, and I don’t even like fish but now I do!”

Without the support from Rhode Island EPSCoR, a National Science Foundation program, Brell said the shoreline exploration would not be possible and students would lose out on the hands-on learning: “Nothing can provide the kind of experience that takes place on a field study of the environment such as this one.”

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Photos: On June 4 and 5, RI NSF EPSCoR brought two groups of Times2 Academy students to Fort Getty; the June 4 trip also included a tour of the Marine Science Research Facility aquarium (below), an RI NSF EPSCoR core facility located on the URI Bay Campus. Above, students engage in individual exploration and group activities at Fort Getty.

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle

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Activity, left, in the shark tank at the Marine Science Research Facility aquarium causes some excitement.

Ed Baker, below, MSRF seawater facility manager, provides a primer on some of the marine life in the aquarium tanks.