Fall 2010 Issue


All Hands on Deck

This Barry alumna is going ‘way’ out of her way to make science come alive for her students

By Rebecca Wakefield

Kathy Schroeder ’08, a participant in NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program, examines jellyfish specimens aboard the Oscar Dyson, a 208-foot vessel with a crew of 15, plus eight scientists.

Kathy Schroeder MS ’08 went a long way this past May to demonstrate the value of hands-on science. From the tiny tropical island of Key Biscayne, where she teaches science to sixth graders, Schroeder traveled to sub-artic waters off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to study fisheries as part of the prestigious National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Teacher at Sea Program.

And she took her students with her; uploading the entire experience to a blog students in grades 5- 8 at Key Biscayne K-8 Center were required to follow as part of their curriculum.

“My best find last night was a squid the size of a Tic-Tac!” she wrote in one entry, as breathlessly excited as any sixth-grader would be to sift through a bucket of seawater with tweezers, looking for microscopic fish.

Schroeder has always been a science hobbyist. As a child back in Louisville, Kentucky, she was frequently found poking into the aquarium or terrarium in her bedroom.

Then, while teaching first-grade at Key Biscayne, the mother of one of her students gave her a book about NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program.

“She worked at NOAA on Virginia Key,” recalled Schroeder with a soft Kentucky twang. “She said, ‘You should do this.’ But it seemed to me like it was out of reach.”

That was in 2004. Then Schroeder decided to get a master’s degree in science from Barry, specializing in educational technology.

“I wanted to expand my children’s learning through the tools that are available,” she explained. “Learning about computer technology for kids was really helpful.”

Schroeder also settled into several years of teaching the sixth-grade – that magical pivot point between the wonder of childhood and the raging hormones of adolescence.

Then the student with the mom from NOAA showed up again in her sixth-grade class and she took it as a sign that she was ready to try something extraordinary. Last October, she applied, along with about 250 other hopefuls from around the country. Only 35 were selected, just two from Florida.

The NOAA Teacher at Sea Program was created in 1990 to give elementary through post-secondary teachers direct experience by partnering them with scientists aboard research ships working in waters all over the world. Since then, nearly 500 teachers have spent a few weeks studying the oceans. The goal of the program is to deepen the teachers’ understanding of the marine environment, inspiring them to pass that adventure to the next generation of scientists, consumers and conservators of the world’s greatest resource.

It certainly worked in Schroeder’s case.

She chose an assignment as far from the tropical waters her students would be familiar with as possible. “[Most of] my students haven’t seen snow or ice,” she said. In early May, she flew to Seattle, then to Anchorage, Alaska, then to Dutch Harbor, where she boarded the Oscar Dyson, a 208-foot research vessel with a crew of 15, plus eight scientists. Her tour of duty lasted from May 5 to May 18.

The ship’s stated mission is to study the relationships between the marine environment and the survival of commercially valuable fish in the western Gulf of Alaska, as well as to study the ecosystems of the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

Over the course of the following two weeks, students were treated to photos of the marine and wildlife their teacher encountered - moose, bald eagles, jellyfish – and pictures of her working as a member of the research crew. She described watching the boat glide slowly through thick sea ice that looked like cloud sculptures of “swans, hippos, the Loch Ness monster.”

Many teachers choose to do the program during the summer months, but Schroeder’s principal liked the idea of allowing students to follow her progress as it was happening.

The team of teachers Schroeder worked with logged on to her blog every day and gave extra credit, Schroeder noted: “Every student knew what I was doing. A lot of them would write me notes on the blog.”

“Ms. Schroeder, Ms. Leung shared your posts with us and we loved Googling the pictures/photos of all the animals that you have seen on your trip,” one student commented on her blog. “For example, we saw a picture of a puffin, Minke whale, and phytoplanktons.”

Despite the scenery, this was no pleasure cruise. The team worked 12 to 14-hour shifts, collecting, sorting and analyzing samples of sea life as well as ice and water samples. Schroeder made sure to photograph and describe the different equipment used and asked the students to speculate on aspects of her findings.

Schroeder lowers a drifter buoy designed to track the movements of Walleye Pollock larvae and fish from ship’s deck.

She was surprised by how much responsibility the professional scientists allowed her in handling expensive equipment. They let her deploy a drifter buoy designed to track the movements of Walleye Pollock larvae and fish. She wrote the school’s name and drew a green turtle on the buoy before dropping it into the sea.

During another deployment of equipment designed to measure the conductivity, temperature and depth of the water column, Schroeder attached a bag of Styrofoam cups decorated by her students. After returning from depths of several hundreds meters, the pressure of the water caused the cups to shrink. “They still look pretty big in the picture but the smallest is actually only 1.5 inches,” she explained.

“How deep was the water you put the cups in?” a student named Pablo asked via the blog. “Does the size also depend on the water pressure? I hope you have fun! Come back soon!”

Schroeder said her favorite part of the trip was examining the jellyfish they found, which ranged in size from that of a marble to larger than a car tire. But the most common animal she dealt with was the walleye Pollock, a white fish most people encounter in the form of fish sticks or imitation crab.

Since returning home to Key Biscayne, Schroeder has made several presentations on her experience, both in the school and to the wider community. And it made her want to do it again. So she’s applying to NOAA again, this time for the Teacher in the Air Program, which would allow her to go up in planes to study hurricanes.

“It was great for me and for them,” she said. “An experience like that gets you excited and that helps get [the students] excited about science and our planet.”

Rebecca Wakefield is a freelance writer based in Miami. She covers politics, culture, and characters for a variety of local and national publications.