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Teachers at sea bring the ocean to the classroom

by Samuel Tatum


>Sue Lab: Zupko, looking at zooplankton under the microscope.Zupko prepares to view zooplankton under the microscope

When summer break comes around, some teachers choose to spend it learning.  This is the case every year for more than 30 teachers from across the country who head out on NOAA ships to assist scientists with ocean research.

Now in its 21st year, NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program has given more than 600 teachers the chance to participate in science at sea. The educators deepen their understanding of the marine environment by working side-by-side, day and night, with the scientists who study it.  And their students end up with a closer connection to the ocean and a better understanding of what NOAA does.

This summer, Sue Zupko, a teacher from Huntsville, Ala., and Jason Moeller, a science educator at the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee, left the comforts of home to embark on scientific voyages.

As soon as she heard about the program, Zupko, a teacher of gifted students at Weatherly Heights Elementary, knew she wanted to apply so she could share some firsthand knowledge of oceanography with her students. Zupko was accepted into the program and joined the crew of the NOAA Ship Pisces in Florida to take part in a deep water coral survey.

“Deep-water coral are amazing,” said Zupko. “I never would have even given these corals a thought if I hadn't been a NOAA Teacher at Sea aboard the Pisces, studying them.  To me as a scuba diver, and probably to most people in general, corals are brightly colored and found in warm, tropical waters with an array of fish and invertebrates living among them.  But deep-water corals are usually found at depths of 100 feet or more, making them inaccessible to the average person and even to many divers.”

MoellerMoeller, measuring pollock for research.

Coral is important to the marine ecosystem because it provides shelter for fish, protecting them from predators and ocean currents, and creates habitat in deeper waters. Zupko assisted researchers as they used a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) to explore the deep water coral.

While Zupko was finishing her trip off the east coast of Florida, Moeller was leaving for Alaska. Since the Knoxville Zoo is far from the ocean, Moeller and his supervisor agreed the experience would help him bring oceanography to the Knoxville Zoo. He was accepted into the program and set off on a walleye pollock survey in the Gulf of Alaska aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.

"The focus of the Oscar Dyson mission this June was to maintain the sustainability of the wild walleye pollock population,” said Moeller. “The importance of pollock could hardly be overstated, since it is the largest fishery by volume in the United States, fetching $1 billion annually. Pollock is found in many seafood products, from fish sticks to imitation crab meat.”

Moeller’s job was to help the scientists survey this fish stock, and he worked through the night, from 4:00 p.m. until 4:00 a.m., as they analyzed the fish they caught for research. Moeller reported, “We collected a lot of data on each of the fish groups that we captured: weight, length, gender, and the amount of fish in the sample. Certain parts of the fish’s body, such as otoliths (fish ear bones) and stomachs, can tell us even more about how old the fish is and what it has been eating.”

In addition to their work with the researchers, Zupko and Moeller took photos and kept blogs of their experiences. Zupko’s blog shows many of the images taken during the ROV surveys of the sea floor, and Moeller’s blog features the various marine animals caught in their trawling net.

Both teachers say they’re excited to share their summer science experience with their students. Zupko, who returned in mid-June, is now planning and designing a class unit on ocean systems.  Meanwhile, Moeller plans to use his trip as a way to bring oceanography into his inland zoo. What he learned will help plan school field trips and activities for various Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups supported by the zoo.

“Participating in real-world research allows teachers to gain experience actually doing science,” said Jennifer Hammond, the director of NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program. “We know this makes a significant impact when they bring back their knowledge to their classrooms and teach their students how the oceans affect their lives.”

One day, students of Zupko and Moeller may find themselves studying the marine environment, and they might remember their curiosity and excitement was sparked by one special teacher who gave up part of the summer to go on a marine science research cruise.

The program’s website is

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