Story last updated at 7/29/2009 - 11:18 am
JUNEAU - The boat rocks to and fro as children scurry from port to starboard, starboard to port. They are suddenly silenced by the sound of a humpback whale surfacing for a breath in the distance, but it doesn't hold their attention for long. They are busy collecting water samples, checking temperatures and attempting to find plankton in their collection nets.
These 11 middle schoolers participated in a first-of-its-kind science day camp held in various locations around Juneau. Sun to Sea Science camp, held July 13-24, offered students the chance to explore the world of wind, weather, waves and more through hands-on learning techniques.
The camp was largely funded by the U.S. Department of Defense through the Juneau Economic and Development Council's (JEDC) Springboard program, which works with schools across the state encouraging students to get excited about potential careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The camp was also largely supported by the Juneau School District, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the National Weather Service and the U.S. Navy's Naval Undersea Warfare Center.
The idea for Sun to Sea came from NOAA biologists Tom Rutecki and Bonita Nelson. Rutecki, having spent a great deal of time doing outreach and education in Juneau schools, thought it would be good to provide middle schoolers with an opportunity to take advantage of the hands-on learning possibilities that exist in the local area.
"At the time, there were no camps in the summer other than athletic camps, so I thought it'd be fun for kids to have a science camp, especially with all the resources we have here," Rutecki said. "Here it's no big deal to just go out and do stuff, whereas a kid from Wichita, Kansas, can't."
Rutecki and Nelson proposed their idea, partnered with the JEDC and put together the program, which includes a handful of lessons and classroom sessions, but mostly hands-on interaction.
"The worst thing you can do is bore them," Rutecki said. "Ninety seconds is the longest lecture you ever want to have."
The camp schedule included activities such as clam digging, boat rides and even a trip up the Mt. Roberts Tramway. Students did a variety of tests on water, wind and air and incorporated all of their findings to come to scientific conclusions about the world around them.
A highlight for many of the students was the construction and operation of a number of Sea Perch underwater remote-operated vehicles. Each Sea Perch is equipped with motors, allowing students to steer them through the seaweed, and a video camera that can be linked to a monitor showing whatever fish, vegetation or other debris may be underwater.
Kathleen Galau, a coordinator and teacher at Sun to Sea, said that middle school is the perfect time for children to begin to explore science more in-depth, especially with Juneau's unique resources.
"The person who had the most influence on me was my middle school science teacher," Galau said.
Galau, originally from Reno, has been teaching for about 13 years, 10 of which have been in Juneau. She has also worked at the Taku Marine Science Camp, a similar camp for high school students.
Sun to Sea involved a variety of topics including an underwater acoustics segment lead by Bob Drake and Alfred Garceau of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island. As acoustics experts, they taught students about underwater sound properties and how both humans and animals make use of them.
With the use of hydrophones, students were able to witness humpback whales bubble feeding, a behavior that causes whales to produce vocalizations.
"They were making all kinds of racket out there," Drake said. "It was fantastic. This is a great laboratory to work in."