Living on South Bass Island means Stone Lab, Ohio State’s island campus located across the water from Put-in-Bay, is never far from people’s minds. For Melissa Kowalski, the science teacher for the 34 students in grades 7-12 at Put-in-Bay schools, the lab building is a familiar sight, and she’s taken classes there in the past.
But last summer, Kowalski took her professional development to the next level, spending a week on a research vessel working with scientists and other educators on bringing hands-on Lake Erie science back to her classroom.
The Great Lakes Shipboard Science Workshop connects teachers with scientists aboard the U.S. EPA ship R/V Lake Guardian for an immersive program that offers first-hand exploration of a Great Lake’s ecology and geology. This year, the Lake Erie cruise focused on harmful algal blooms, plastic pollution and zooplankton populations.
“It was all just really an incredible experience,” Kowalski said. “My bachelor’s is in biology and geology, so being able to do actual research science in a lab with other people that are like-minded was really… it was transformative, honestly. It renewed my excitement for teaching and science in general and I think it’s going to really be beneficial for my students.”
Kowalski worked in the ship’s algae lab with Dr. George Bullerjahn of Bowling Green State University, studying mud samples from the bottom of the lake to see if algal toxins from harmful algal blooms remain in the mud after the bloom has dissipated. Data she and the other teachers in the lab collected will be part of a larger partnership between BGSU and researchers at The University of Toledo, but Kowalski will also bring that real-world scientific experience back to her students.
Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab education specialists Lyndsey Manzo and Angela Greene were part of the instructor team for the workshop. In addition to helping teachers integrate their shipboard experience into their curriculum, they presented teaching tools ranging from Google Maps to video apps that can make teaching more engaging and effective.
“In teacher education, it’s not just about the content, it’s not just about how you teach, but you have to be able to use instructional technology,” Manzo said. “Not just presentation technology, but there are so many tools now that make learning more efficient, and we really try to integrate those pieces into our workshops.”
Being on a working EPA research ship also gave the teachers an opportunity to watch EPA research staff in their element. When some of the sampling gear used to collect microplastics broke, the technicians went to work, engineering a solution in real time and salvaging most of the planned sample collections.
“It’s one thing to read about the scientific process in a book and do it in a lab course in college, but to actually be out there, doing this novel research that nobody’s ever done before is really a pretty cool thing,” Kowalski said. “I think it solidifies people’s understanding of how things actually go.”
Kowalski continues to work with the teachers she met on the Lake Guardian on how to integrate their experiences into their classrooms. Teachers partnered with other educators from similar school settings to create a collaboration plan that helped them note how each activity or piece of information could be used with their students. Feedback from the larger group of educators also helped to refine those plans.
“I don’t have other science teachers to collaborate with at my school,” Kowalski said. “So I really love when I get the chance to go and talk to other teachers. It just gives me so many good ideas.”
That’s true regardless of where teachers work – Great Lakes educator workshops like this one not only offer professional development opportunities, but help educators build community beyond their school district. That continued collaboration helps bring new knowledge to the classroom, re-energizes teachers’ commitment to education, and helps them do their best work for their students and their community.