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An Ocean View

 NOAA helps students from the American School for the Deaf take a visual approach in teaching others about the sea.

by Taylor Sisk

Using sign language, Jason Williams explains an experiment over a live Webcast.

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.
harbor seals in the water off Fisher's Island in Long Island Sound

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 its National 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.

Critical thought

Students get ready to handle a gelatinous zooplankton as part of their learning experience.

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 grant.

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.

Picture 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 sciences program.

"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 this program."

For more on the Classroom of the Sea program, visit the Classroom of the Sea Web site at

To get near real-time data from Long Island Sound, visit the University of Connecticut Web site at

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Updated: July 18, 2005