Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Whales of the Salish Sea: It's WOSSome!

As an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, part of my duty is to provide educational opportunities to underserved communities, in addition to supporting our organizational mission of inspiring conservation of the Salish Sea. Our residential program, Whales of the Salish Sea (WOSS), is a perfect example of how these tasks combine and complement each other. For three days in November, almost fifty 5th graders toured the Marine Science Center and received hands-on lessons in marine biology and public policy. WOSS was also a chance for our entire AmeriCorps team to work together and learn from each other and experienced educators, including WOSS Coordinator (and past AmeriCorps member) Megan Veley.

On the first day, we introduced students to marine mammals and dove into the ecology of orca communities. Everyone received a hands-on lesson about the important role of blubber in insulating whales from the cold waters of the Salish Sea. I got the chance to coach several students through the process of scientific drawing when we observed marine mammal skulls as a class to identify their adaptation for living in the ocean. The students also answered questions including “how do researchers identify individual orcas?” and “what kinds of relationships exist between pods of orcas?”

Left: Students used an insulated "blubber glove" in a bucket of seawater to understand how whales keep warm Right: Gray whale skeleton articulation in progress

Next, students got an up-close look at the tiniest animals in the Salish Sea and a hands-on lesson with one of the largest when they examined plankton under microscopes and articulated Spirit, our gray whale skeleton.

Plankton collection on the dock also included a surprise visit from a juvenile harbor seal, an important illustration of the abundance of marine life in the waters around Port Townsend.

The program culminated in a mock Town Hall Meeting, a chance for all the students to synthesize the content they’d learned over the past three days and discuss the merits and drawbacks of a proposed tidal turbine in Admiralty Inlet. I was impressed at how confident and informed the students were in presenting their opinions. It was extremely satisfying to see how our work during the lessons had paid off with a greater understanding of the interdependence of humans and animals living in the Salish Sea.

Even more inspiring were the students who told me they were now interested in pursuing a career in marine biology!

The class was excited to share their opinions at the mock Town Hall meeting
In addition to providing valuable learning experience for our students, I had the chance to immerse myself in the curriculum that our team will be using in the coming months for our Free Science Classes. I look forward to continuing to improve my skills as an educator and working with more groups of curious students.

Thank you to Megan Veley, Nancy Israel, Amy Johnson, Susan Bullerdick, and Gabriele Sanchez for making Whales of the Salish Sea a success!

CAROLYN WOODS is the Natural History Exhibit and Volunteer Educator and an AmeriCorps Member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

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