“It makes you realize how little we actually know about the ocean, and that we’re this tiny little dot on the surface, on this little ship. It’s just humbling.”
That’s Ohio Sea Grant Extension educator Jill Bartolotta, talking about her experience aboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer as part of NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program. The program gives teachers the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge ocean science, working side-by-side with scientists. Now in its 29th year, the program has provided nearly 800 teachers the opportunity to gain first-hand experience participating in science at sea.
Bartolotta spent two weeks aboard Okeanos Explorer during a mission to map the Atlantic Ocean floor near Florida, learning about the science of ocean mapping and the many careers represented among the ship’s crew.
“That was my role on the ship, to learn about the science but then also to learn about everyone on the ship, what they do and how they got there,” said Bartolotta. “They all have great stories of how they came to be living a life at sea and their stories of traveling the world on ships were just really phenomenal.”
Many of those stories will inform future Ohio Sea Grant outreach work as well. Bartolotta is planning to create displays that lay out the career paths available on NOAA ships, and how students interested in a career at sea can prepare for those paths.
”Now that I have a better understanding of what is involved, I will create this career journey board that we’ll take to outreach events so that when we meet with young people, we can introduce these careers to them,” she said. “We’ll let them know what opportunities are out there for them, including Stone Lab as one place to get experience in this type of work.” Stone Lab, Ohio Sea Grant’s research, education and outreach facility on Lake Erie, offers summer courses and professional skills workshops to those interested in aquatic sciences.
The officers on a NOAA ship are part of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, a non-military branch of the federal uniformed services. NOAA Corps members usually have science backgrounds and hold 4-year degrees, and complete U.S. Coast Guard training before their first assignment.
Civilian professional mariners are responsible for the ship’s everyday operations, from kitchen to engine room and everywhere in between. Lab technicians who run sampling equipment and sonar operations are included in this career path.
But participation in the Teacher at Sea Program extends far beyond the few weeks spent on a NOAA ship. “Teachers describe this authentic research experience as transformative and one that allows them to bring new knowledge and excitement back to their classrooms,” said Jennifer Hammond, the program’s director.
This year, NOAA received applications from nearly 300 teachers, and chose 19 to participate in research cruises. These educators are able to enrich their classroom work with the depth of understanding they gain by living and working alongside scientists studying the marine environment.
Educators who participate in the program often take an active role in developing those curricula as well. Bartolotta will include aspects of life at sea into her lesson plans, from naming parts of a ship to commonly used phrases that aren’t part of most people’s vocabulary. In addition, a science lesson plan will let students build test ships to see which shapes move through water the best, and relate those shapes back to the aquatic animals that inspire how sea-going vessels are designed.
“These resources are available for teachers all over the world to teach their students about what’s going on across the ocean,” Bartolotta said. The final lesson plans will be available through NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research at oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/edu, as well as through the Ohio Sea Grant website.