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Waves of Knowledge

By Larry D. Hodge

Texas A&M’s Floating Classroom Program takes to the water to teach coastal concepts.

Every time the 57-foot former shrimp boat R.V. Karma leaves port, it carries a new crew of students eager to learn about the coastal environment. Since its first educational voyage in 2001, the Karma has carried more than 3,000 students of all ages.

The Karma’s captain and an on-board naturalist immerse students in marine study using trawls, plankton nets, water samplers, bottom corers, video-enhanced microscopes and live tanks for the display of sea plants and creatures. When students probe clumps of plankton just pulled from the water and come face to face with blue crabs, shrimp and flopping fish, the importance of coastal habitat comes alive far more effectively than by reading about it in books.

That’s the method of Texas A&M University’s Floating Classroom Program, a joint effort of the Texas Sea Grant College Program and Texas Cooperative Extension. The program offers field trips to 4th grade through 12th grade classes and other organized groups. Learning objectives for school groups correlate to the state-mandated TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) test.

Upon arrival at headquarters in Matagorda, students divide into two groups. One group enjoys shore-based activities while the other takes to the water aboard the Karma; after lunch the groups switch.

While ashore, students learn how changing salinity gradients affect life. They peer at various kinds of plankton through microscopes, draw what they see and learn why plankton make Gulf waters appear green instead of blue. At other learning stations, students learn how ships float, why marine transportation is so efficient, where the world’s major ports are located and how marine trash affects people and wildlife.

As an alternative to the shore-based classroom activities, groups may elect to visit a nearby marsh for what coordinator Willie Younger calls “muck and yuck” activities, exploring the variety of life in the shallows and ooze.

“The overriding goal is for students to come away with an understanding of how we impact the coast and how the resources here affect them, even if they live in Amarillo or Dallas,” says Younger. “They go away seeing the value of what takes place here on the coast and the importance of freshwater inflows to the bays. We hope they grow up to be better decision-makers than we were, because they have better knowledge. We want them to become more ‘coastal literate.’”

Aboard the Karma, students help net plankton from the water and then examine these tiny drifting plants and animals under a microscope connected to a TV monitor. After collecting a sediment sample from the bottom, students screen the muck through sieves and then view the tiny worms, snails and other creatures through microscopes as the naturalist explains the role each plays in the marine web of life.

While the program is largely aimed at children, adult groups such as elderhostels may book trips as space permits. Elementary and secondary school teachers can take three-day summer workshops to help them present lessons on marine ecology in their own classrooms. Scholarships cover all costs of the teacher workshops, including lodging and meals; call (979) 863-2940 for information.

The Floating Classroom accepts groups of up to 54. Grants from the Houston Chapter of the Marine Technology Society and the Coastal Impact Assistance Program defray all but $100 of the $1,000 fee for groups such as public and private school classes, home school associations, scout troops, boys and girls clubs, 4-H clubs and public service organizations. Programs are offered Monday through Saturday. To learn more or to make reservations, write Floating Classroom Program, Texas Marine Advisory Service, P.O. Box 18, Matagorda, TX 77457; call (979) 863-2940; or e-mail Laura Beach at lbeach@neo.tamu.edu.

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