Educators Experience Shipboard Science

By Sharon Moen

Photo by Chris J. Benson

Joel Hoffman wasn't his usual energetic self on July 27. Dark circles shadowed his eyes and fatigue had flattened his quick smile. Of all the sleep-deprived people stepping off the R/V Lake Guardian that morning, Hoffman, research biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), had slept the least.

"Joel ... I think he got at most about four hours of sleep a day," said one of the educators who participated in the seven-day Shipboard and Shoreline Science Workshop that Hoffman led along with Sea Grant facilitators and other scientists. The Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE) Great Lakes' workshop gave 15 educators from across the Great Lakes Basin a tight, round-the-clock week to develop and conduct studies in Lake Superior from the deck of the EPA's research vessel. Their projects will likely inform future work by other educators and scientists, and will definitely echo in curricula in years to come. Concepts that they are sharing with their students include:

Understand scientific equipment. To compare water attributes between offshore areas and estuaries, four educators became adept at using a "snode" and a CTD/rosette. Their data showed that, indeed, Lake Superior is cold and relatively unproductive. Disappointingly, it also showed that the two instruments yielded different results. Because of challenges working with the instruments and the data discrepancies, the educators became expert troubleshooters for the snode. Their hard-won expertise will benefit the EPA, which has a new program to loan these tools to other educators. The team plans to continue working together as they lead their students into waters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York.

Lake Superior isn't thick with phytoplankton. The four educators comparing phytoplankton genera from the nearshore to the offshore were enthusiastic about seeing algae such as "it-looks-like-a-train-wreck" Tabellaria up close for the first time. The educators reported high chlorophyll-a concentrations, an indication of phytoplankton abundance, in the waters bisecting the Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan, and modest phytoplankton activity in the St. Louis River Estuary shared by Wisconsin and Minnesota. Otherwise, the river mouths and the offshore regions they sampled were relatively unproductive.

Zooplankton aren't plentiful. "Lake Superior is cold, and colder," said one of the three teachers assessing the diversity of zooplankton in different areas of Lake Superior. The educators found the suite and abundance of tiny animals living offshore, nearshore, and near a river mouth were similar. They reported that the total zooplankton abundance in late July is about 3.5 organisms per liter and thought that maybe, if they could re-collect data, they would be more vigilant about what time of day they were sampling since some creatures, like Holopedium gibberum, move deeper into the water column during the day.

Plastics aren't plentiful, either. Four educators went looking for synthetic polymer products in the waters of western Lake Superior. They joked that their ability to collect data was limited by Hoffman's mercy and where he said they could deploy the sampling equipment. Aside from what they believed was a gas cap, the research team didn't pull plastics they could see from offshore waters. Near Houghton, Michigan, they found dozens of what they called "UPISs" (unidentified putatively inorganic shreds) as well as a few identifiable plastics. Dr. Lorena Rios-Mendoza of the University of Wisconsin Superior will be examining the samples the team collected for microplastics in the coming months. As background, the educators explained that an estimated 10 percent of the 200 billion pounds of plastics produced every year end up in the world's oceans.

At the reporting session, Hoffman congratulated the bone-weary but freshly motivated educators for all they endured and accomplished. "I am really impressed," he said. "You have come an enormous way."

Facilitators from Sea Grant programs in Minnesota, Ohio, and Illinois/Indiana made this opportunity for teachers to work first-hand with scientists on research projects possible and more applicable. The 2011 Shipboard and Shoreline Science Workshop was sponsored by the EPA, the National Science Foundation's Division of Ocean Sciences, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant Program through COSEE Great Lakes, with support from Minnesota Sea Grant. For more information see: