Month-long Hawaiian research cruise enhances secondary educators science skills

Aug. 8, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas—Three secondary school teachers and an Austin educational researcher will soon gain hands-on experience during a research cruise near Honolulu led by a University of Texas at Austin marine scientist.

The educators, scientists and other crew leave San Diego on Wednesday, Aug. 20, to participate in research projects overseen by Dr. Tracy Villareal, an associate professor at the College of Natural Sciences’ Marine Science Institute. He and researchers from two other institutions are using the cruise to complete a three-year study of nutrient use by phytoplankton living in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Assisting with the ocean testing for the researchers’ three projects will be Mrs. Dora Leal (Bryan Elementary School, Mission, Texas), Ms. Daryl Newcomb (Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School, Little Rock, Ark.), Mr. John Praytor (Maysville High School, Maysville, Okla.), and Dr. Nikki Hanegan, a science education research specialist from the Austin-based Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). The research part of the cruise on the R.V. New Horizon will begin near Honolulu and continue toward Midway Island to the northwest. The crew will arrive back in San Diego on Sept. 16.

The educators participating in the Southwest Teachers’ Education and Marine Expedition for Research (STEAMER) will bring their experiences back to classrooms through e-mail and Web communications and use the experiences to plan future ocean science lessons.

In one project during the research portion of the 28-day excursion, the STEAMER educators will assist Villareal in studying whether microscopic phytoplankton are releasing nitrogen into the upper, sunlit expanses of the eastern Pacific. The photosynthesizing creatures he’s interested in can sink down to the ocean floor to pick up this scarce nutrient before rising to the top 164 feet of the sunlit (euphotic) zone.

The educators will use large nets to help Villareal and graduate student Heather Singler in capturing the depth-diving phytoplankton. The plankton float in clusters that can span 12 inches and resemble “cat-hair dust bunnies.”

“We’re trying to find out whether these phytoplankton are a significant source of nitrogen in the euphotic zone,” Villareal says, noting that the information could help explain the role oceans play in storing atmospheric carbon dioxide that’s linked to global warming.

The educators will also help Dr. Michael McCKay, associate professor ofbiology from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, study how important the iron content of phytoplankton is to their use of nitrogen. And they will assist Dr. Cynthia Pilksaln, a geologistfrom the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, in using video camerastowed behind the 170-foot boat to measure the concentration of phytoplanktonin the ocean’s waters.

The three studies are funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $985,985. Villareal obtained a supplemental, $50,000 NSF grant with Hanegan as a subcontractor this year to support the educators’ participation in the upcoming cruise. It will occur on the boat provided by the Scripps National Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., which also provided the R.V. Melville for a previous cruise.

Hanegan will serve as a liaison between researchers and teachers on the upcoming cruise, which secondary school teachers and students can participate in by accessing the educators’ e-mail addresses at the STEAMER Web site. The site also provides more information on cruise educational activities.

For more information contact: Dr. Tracy Villareal, MSI, 361-749-6732, or Dr. Nikki Hanegan, SEDL, 512-476-6861, ext. 263.