Thursday, August 27, 2009

Crab training videos!

I posted yesterday about my student's awesome experiment training crabs. Here are two videos I took of Crab B (Bertha) in the training tank. Note that the crab immediately goes to the hanging metal sinker and earns its reward (a bit of fresh mussel meat... yum!).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

summer reflections (part 3)

Mountain top yoga... it is my new goal to do this as often as possible. I went hiking with friends the other day in New Hampshire. It was a bit overcast, and we were rain soaked on the way down. This was actually a nice break from the heat and humidity of Boston. It was wonderful to be in the White Mountains again. These forests feel familiar and safe to me in a way that the plans, scrubland, and vast open areas of Texas never did. I guess that is part of what makes many of us have such strong attachments to the regions where we grew up.

Reflections on summer adventures as summer comes to a close (part 2)

I spent some time in Maine with my family before moving in to the new place. I was able to meet one nephew for the first time, and reacquaint myself with my other nephew who I have not seen in about 4 years (they live in Kenya). Taking my nephews into the tide pools was a wonderful experience. We found hermit crabs, green crabs, and even a lobster! At first my nephews were not so into getting wet and sandy, and the crabs were a bit scary. After they got more comfortable, however, they loved it! The above photo is one of my nephews not so sure how he feels about a sea star (Asterias forbesi) that my brother found while we were kayaking.

The unfamiliar is scary, and this is why we need to force young people into it. That should be one of the main goals of education. Not to frighten children, but to expose them to as many things as possible so that less is unfamiliar. If we wait too long prejudices are already established and it takes more than a morning walk through tide pools to expand the world and discover something wonderful.

Reflections on summer adventures as summer comes to a close (part 1)

The island courses are over, and I have (mostly) moved in to the new place. It is in a wonderful location, and I feel very good about it. A few noteworthy things have happened that you might be interested in...

One of my Marine Environmental Science students who stayed on the island to take another class after ours finished up had an amazing experience that involved her research project from our class and the woman who was her scientific inspiration for the whole project. This woman (Karen Pryor) has written books about clicker training with dogs (among other things) and in one of them she wrote a paragraph about training a hermit crab to ring a bell for food. My student (Lily) had read the book and wanted to see if she could do the same thing. Lily used operant conditioning to train a Green Crab (Carcinus maenus) to interact with a metal sinker in order to earn a food reward. I have to admit that none of the teaching staff of our course really thought it would work, but Lily was so eager to try that we gave her the go-ahead. Anyhow, Karen Pryor just so happened to come out to the island, meet Lily, and hear all about this project. She was very impressed, and Lily was overjoyed! Dr. Pryor wrote about it in her blog and you can read about it here. Most students are not lucky enough to meet their idols when they are in high school. Most high school students probably don't have science idols in high school (I did - E.O. Wilson, still an idol!). I can only imagine what Lily will accomplish in the years to come and how much this experience will be worth in terms of motivation and inspiration! This is an especially wonderful story for me as a teacher. It is pretty rare to see so directly a class activity impact the life and future of a student's life.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Best Whale Watch, really!

We went out on a whale watch yesterday with the class. I was excited, but didn’t have many expectations. I figured we might see a few shadowy figures in the distance and be convinced that they were whales. I could not have been more wrong! We must have seen 50 different whales, and we saw some incredibly close. Not only did we see whales up close, but we saw some really amazing behavior.

We blew past some Minke whales on the way out because the captain had been told about Humpbacks a ways out. We stopped to see some Finbacks chowing down on a huge bait ball. This also allowed us to see enormous numbers of Shearwaters and Wilson’s Storm Petrils sharing in the whales feast. After being thoroughly amazed by these examples of the planet’s second largest organism we went off in search of Humpbacks.

We came across a mother and calf and they shocked us by getting right up close to the boat and doing partial breaches. We were able to see the massive head if the young Humpback right next to the boat. We watched the two eat and dive for a while and then went in search of other whales. For a while we were all on sensory overload because in any direction you could see spouting or diving (showing us their tail). There were plenty of Finbacks around as well and even a few Minkes.

The grand climax came just about as we were getting ready to head back. We came across a group of 3 humpbacks that, after gorging themselves on baby herring, were incredibly playful. We were treated to flipper slapping in unison, synchronized dives, and lots of breaching! Seeing a humpback whale come all the way out of the water is not something I will forget, ever. One particularly feisty animal breached 5 times in a row. It really seemed like they were performing just for us. When we finally had to pull ourselves away two of the whales began to tail-slap the water repeatedly, as if waving goodbye to us. This continued until we were out of view. Truly amazing!

Check out the video that I put together about the trip: Whale Watch Film

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A typical day on the island

Written at 11:30pm last night...

Time moves fast on the island. The new course has been here for 5 days now, so the course is more than 1/3 over. It was a good, very busy day. We started with a survey lecture about ocean vertebrates, then had time for group project work (students are designing their own experiments in groups). We ate lunch quickly and half of the class went on a seal-viewing boat trip to a nearby island. They saw Harbor Seals and Grey Seals displaying many interesting behaviors. The rest of us did a second round of transects. This involved gathering chemical, biological, and physical data about tide pools on the exposed side of the island for later comparison with similar data collection from the sheltered side. Organisms on the exposed side tend to be dwarfed, and there is less biodiversity. It is a wonderful venue for discussing environmental factors that affect intertidal life. It was pouring rail during this collection, but the intrepid young scientists were not deterred. There were very few complaints despite all of us being thoroughly soaked, and morale was high throughout!

At 4pm the now dry students came to the lab for their lab practical. They had to memorize the Latin names of 30 intertidal organisms as well as different adaptations that each organism had that helps it succeed in the rocky intertidal zone. They also had to key out a mystery algae using a dichotomous key. After this we had a delicious dinner of risotto, Arctic Char, and sauteed spinach. After dinner the class mad a sculpture out of the non-recyclable marine debris that they collected yesterday. They created a “monster” that they “slew” with a lobster buoy sword. I was very impressed. Following this creative time there was a lecture from the other TA about experiments in Cephalopod cognition. During this lecture there was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. There were vibrant reds and oranges and some patches of blue right in the middle of it all. The blue patches I don’t understand, and they didn’t come out in the pictures that I snuck out of lecture (I heard it last course) to take. This all ended about 9pm, and the students had their first (and maybe only) real free night. They had nothing to study for, and no major projects to work on so they were free to hang out and watch movies or go to bed as they pleased. This was a relatively relaxing day, believe it or not. Tomorrow we clean up oil spills, echolocate, do more transects and seal viewing, talk about marine fisheries, and watch presentations from students in the Genetics of Marine Diversity class. It should be another good one.