On Campus

Ocean exploration: Marine ecology students learn through discussion and field trip

First-year Upper School (US) Science Teacher Terry Cox’s marine ecology elective isn’t a typical US science class: only three seniors are enrolled, and they take part in determining the curriculum based on their individual interests. 

As they focus on how climate change affects the ocean and marine life, Leyla Ewald, James Brunelli, and Rose Lober (all ’19) start class discussing current events through a word of the day and a thought of the day. Past words and thoughts of the day have sparked conversations about news stories such as microplastics from car tires and asphalt entering the ocean, light pollution affecting fish and their breeding habits, and biodiversity showing up in Australia’s coral reefs.

“I’m really interested in the student-driven approach, which takes away the hierarchy of the teacher as superior and the students as inferior,” Mr. Cox said, adding that he believes activities allowing students to learn about topics they’re interested in improves the course dynamic.

Students also have the opportunity to delve into their specific passions within marine ecology through weekly current topic presentations shared with the class. Recent presentations have been on subjects like jellyfish as critical food sources, fish as test subjects for antidepressants, and the lethal effects of red tides.

US Assistant Director and Science Teacher Katrina Fuller, who sits in on most classes, noted the contemporary relevance of the topics covered in class discussions and praised the seniors’ level of engagement.

“The three of them are probably the three most curious students I have taught when it comes to studying marine science,” Ms. Fuller said.

Leyla attributes the group’s curiosity to the hands-on approach Mr. Cox has instilled in the course.

“The combination of labs and field trips allows us to further engage with the material,” she said.

In October, the class travelled to the Northeastern University Marine Science Center in Nahant, where they toured the facility and heard from a graduate student about her research on the relationship between plankton and coral reefs. The students also collected water samples from the ocean’s intertidal zone and tested them for properties such as turbidity, pH, temperature, and salinity.

Then there was the “Nike Shoe Investigation,” a lab the group enjoyed conducting when studying tides and current patterns. 

“We looked at a real-life example of a cargo ship that spilled Nike shoes into the ocean and analyzed the currents to see where the shoes would have ended up based on where they were lost,” Leyla said.

Another recent lab involved studying the concentration of toxic chemicals in the ocean to learn how they affect sea monkeys.

“I enjoy the material a lot, and I like that it is very hands-on,” James said. “We always try to link what we are learning back to what is happening in our present day and in our local communities as well,” he added, citing a group project focused on the rocky intertidal zone and its connection to policies in Massachusetts.

Aside from the course’s real-world applications, Rose noted that the small size of the class has been her favorite part.

“I can learn my classmates’ perspectives a lot more, and Mr. Cox can spend more time answering our questions,” Rose said. “It’s a really positive environment.”

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