Aboard the R/V Connecticut, Jason
Williams explains an experiment to students watching from
across the country via live Webcast
"They're visual learners, and so seeing and
participating is quite beneficial to them. They're part of the learning
experience. They're making a learning experience."
On this day, a chill, gray Thursday in November, an American
School for the Deaf biology class is about as boisterous, in the
orderly, engaged sense, as an 11th-grade class will get. These students
are encouraged to use their voices - to articulate words; to ooh
and ah and object and delight - but auditory energy is but one small
source of this ruckus.
The six students - Chris Faulborn,
Josh Howe, Kyle Perusse, Imran Sarfani, Trudy
Smith and Jason Williams - are absorbed in a
paroxysm of academic intent. They're making
science. Hands, elbows and hips cut the air
with a dramatic precision, full-body expression,
shaping words, concepts, disclosing the findings
of this, their latest investigation, a salinity
reading from the waters of eastern Long Island
Sound, just beneath their feet.
Students at sea report back via live Webcast to
their classmates in West Hartford about harbor seal behavior.
Location: Fisher's Island, Long Island Sound.
They're aboard the R/V Connecticut
as part of a program sponsored by the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
It's called Classroom of the Sea, and it's conducted
by NOAA's Undersea Research Program (NURP) through
Undersea Research Center (NURC) for the North
Atlantic and Great Lakes located at the
University of Connecticut. They're here to report
on the well-being of harbor seals - lounging
just off starboard, on crags and water - and
they're speaking not only among themselves,
but via a live Web-based video stream to their
classmates back in West Hartford (Conn.), as
well as to other classrooms, coast to coast,
some within schools for the deaf, some not.
They're learning; they're teaching; they're
having a great big time.
During Classroom of the Sea trips, students
truly get a "hands on" experience. Here a student is poised
and ready to handle a salp, a type of gelatinous zooplankton
The Classroom of the Sea program is a product of the
success of a summer outreach curriculum for high schoolers
and teachers called the Aquanaut Program, which the NURC at the
University of Connecticut has directed since 1988. Aquanaut integrates
mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology in addressing real-life
marine-environment issues. NURC provides tools - including the R/V
Connecticut, remotely operated vehicles and extremely high-tech
sonar systems - and mentor/scientists to conduct in situ
research studies in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
off the coast of Massachusetts. The Classroom of the Sea is Aquanaut's
school-year sister program, a collaborative effort of NURC and the
American School for the Deaf, under a National Science Foundation
Today's cruise is to Fishers Island
in the eastern part of Long Island Sound. Among
the tests the students are to conduct are those
for salinity, temperature and the amount of
oxygen in the water - this last because the
sound is suffering from oxygen depletion as
a result of, most particularly, waste discharges
and chemical fertilizer runoff.
When the students complete their
research they will report their findings to
Connecticut state congressman Rob Simmons. And
in so doing, they will have applied critical
thinking and analysis to the integration of
not only the physical sciences and math, but
sociology, political science, public policy
analysis, economics, history and English.
this: the sound of a whale
"These kids get a kick out of teaching," says
Peter Scheifele, NURC's director of Marine Education
Programs and a principal investigator of the
Classroom of the Sea. "This group today, I went
into the galley and said, 'My son's fourth-grade
class is watching you today, and they think
you guys are really great.' They love that."
"The kids think of this as their
boat," says Mary LaPorta, a science teacher
at the American School for the Deaf. "They can
relate this work to something that's real. It's
not just something they've read about or seen
on TV, here they're actually involved in it.
"They're visual learners, and
so seeing and participating is quite beneficial
to them. They're part of the learning experience.
They're making a learning experience."
"My first lesson in this program,"
Scheifele recalls, "was from a young girl named
Olga in the first Aquanaut group, telling me,
'Look, I have a stake in deaf whales. I know
what it's like to be deaf. If you make too much
noise and that animal becomes deaf, I know exactly
what it's going to be like for him.' "And then,
right after that, going back into class, and
having this girl raise her hand and ask, 'What
does a humpback whale sound like.' This girl's
never heard her own voice; she was born deaf.
How am I supposed to tell her what a humpback
whale sounds like?
"I thought about it; what am I
going to say? 'It sounds like a moan?' Well,
she doesn't know what a moan sounds like. I
put her off that day, because I really didn't
know what to say.
"And then the next day I was
doing my own research, and I thought, 'Well,
you dummy; you might not be able to tell her
what it sounds like, but you can sure show her.
Bring the meter to school and show her.'
"So I brought a spectrum analyzer
to class and I played a recording into it, and
I said, 'Look. See that. That's a humpback whale.
And it went like wildfire through all the kids,
'That's a humpback whale.' I spent 23 years
in the Navy, part of the time as a sonar technician,
and I can tell you these kids are probably better
at looking at a screen than most Navy sonar
technicians. They'll pick little things out
and say, 'Look; this is a boat noise.'
"So when other kids later asked,
'What does a whale sound like?' Olga would say,
'Come; look. That's what it sounds like.' In
my lifetime, I'll never forget that. It became
the hallmark of how I approached things."
Two American School for the Deaf
graduates who last year were in the Classroom
of the Sea program are now at college, intent
on becoming science teachers. One is at Gallaudet
University (in Washington, DC; one of the world's
leading liberal arts colleges for the deaf),
the other at community college, taking math
and English classes with plans of next year
entering the University of Connecticut's marine
"I see this program," says LaPorta,
"as an opportunity for them to have an experience
that opens up a world that probably wouldn't
have been opened to them."
"Mary will go back in tomorrow,"
says Scheifele, at the end of this seafaring
day, "and, boom, they'll have it, and the language
and the signs and the concepts and where we're
going will suddenly come together. They're telling
each other, 'No, that's wrong; this is how you
do it, this is what a titration is, and this
is what salinity means.' And that's why we started
For more on the Classroom of the
Sea program, visit the Classroom of the Sea
Web site at www.cos.uconn.edu.
To get near real-time data from Long Island Sound, visit
the University of Connecticut Web site at www.mysound.uconn.edu.