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High School Marine Science at its Best: Research Collaboration

By Myra Morgan

Type of Entry:

  • project

Type of Activity:

  • hands-on activity
  • inquiry lab
  • group/cooperative learning
  • community outreach/off-site activity
  • scientific community-high school collaboration

Target Audience:

  • Biology
  • Advanced Biology
  • Integrated Science (upper levels)
  • Environmental studies
  • Marine Biology


This activity/project helps students formulate a more accurate understanding of the true nature of scientific research and the challenges and rewards of field investigations. It helps foster an increased environmental awareness and stewardship by examining the effects of heavy metals on a vital marine resource, the deep sea scallop. The project also helps students to see the vital connections between math, science, and technology.

Although this project is a collaboration with NOAA's National Undersea Research Laboratory (Avery Point, CT) and a principal investigator at the National Marine Fisheries (Milford, Ct.) lab, all instruction necessary for students to be effectively involved in this research project was developed by the instructor. Similar projects (either terrestrial, aquatic or marine) could be designed by first identifying a specific scientific laboratory (either industrial, university, or government) which is logistically convenient for interaction, and then identifying a scientist's on-going field research project/environmental monitoring project in which students could be involved. This interaction developed between the principal investigator and students need not be limited to on-site lab visits, as students can regularly communicate regarding their project status by e-mail; however, several laboratory visits should definitely be scheduled, as well as visits by the principal investigator to the students lab during data analysis and final report preparation.

Weekly after-school meetings (one hour/week) were scheduled from March to May to provide students with the necessary background and laboratory skills for our research project. During the summer, a four-day trip at the end of June (after completion of school year) to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for laboratory visits, and a four day research cruise in August completed the data collection. Finally, weekly after-school meetings resumed in September thru November for data analysis and final report preparation. Student's participation and attendance was required for all after-school meetings and the summer field work. As with all field research involvement, this represented a serious commitment of time and energy on the part of all participants.

Notes to Teacher:

No class time was used for this project. The students involved came from several different grades and several different science classes.


This project involved the environmental monitoring of deep-sea scallops for heavy metals in the Jeffreys Ledge area of the Gulf of Maine by high school students in collaboration with NOAA's National Undersea Research Laboratory and their High School Aquanaut Program. From March to May, in-depth background work was accomplished in weekly after-school meetings focusing on the biology of deep-sea scallops, species diversity studies of the Gulf of Maine benthic habitat, and deep-sea submersible technology. Numerous visits to various coastal marine research facilities were arranged, including a four-day trip to Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This field planning culminated in a 4 day research cruise aboard the RV Edwin Link in the Gulf of Maine, with each student having an opportunity to dive in the 3-person submersible, Clelia, collecting deep-sea scallops for subsequent heavy metal analysis, and videotaping the ocean bottom marine fauna for later species diversity analysis. From September thru November, after-school weekly meetings resumed in order to analyze the following data collected from the research cruise:

  1. concentration of heavy metal body burdens in adductor muscles of deep-scallops,

  2. concentration of nutrients above and below the thermocline, and

  3. the relative species richness of three unique benthic habitats identified in the Jeffreys Ledge area.

The student t-test was performed on shell size and metal concentration data, as well as fitness indices and correlation coefficients determined. Video transects were analyzed and identifiable species were recorded along with specific bottom habitat. Finally, students prepared a scientific report and poster which were presented in a public forum at the National Undersea Research Center's Avery Point Campus.


Materials and equipment

  • 6 sets of standard dissecting instruments
  • Niskin sampling bottle
  • 4 doz. wide-mouth polypropylene jars with caps (1oz.)
  • DR400 spectrophotometer
  • 6--300ml BOD bottles
  • Excel software
  • analytical balances
  • 2- Hach Digital Titrators, Model 16900-01
  • 2-- Hach Sodium Thiosulfate cartridges, 0.2000N
  • 2-- Mercuric Nitrate cartridges, 2.57N
  • Diphenylcarbazone reagent powder pillows
  • atomic absorption spectrophotometer (off-site in NOAA lab)
  • Hach Dissolved Oxygen reagent set
  • pi-pumps, for 1,5,10ml pipettes
  • pipettes, 1,5,and 10ml

This marine science research project is an attempt to help students develop a more accurate understanding of the true nature of scientific research, and to actively involve students in this research by working under the direct mentorship of the scientific community.

Although this deep-sea monitoring project was supported by NOAA's National Undersea Research Program in conjunction with their High School Aquanaut Program, I have used this same model (scientific community-high school collaboration) in other field research projects less technologically sophisticated, but with just as much student success. An important "key" to this success is to have students involved in all aspects of the project, from the design/planning of experimental procedures necessary to answer questions posed by the project, actual data collection and subsequent processing of samples/specimens, data analysis with appropriate statistical methods, writing-up results in the acceptable format for journal publication, to public presentation of these results in an arena similar to a scientific meeting. Student research projects are much more prevelant today than even a decade ago; however, linking students directly to the scientific community in this process helps students see that scientific research, especially field research can be very challenging with regards to the unpredicatable nature of weather, field equipment performance, working with wild populations of organisms, and the expense/funding considerations of this research, to name only a few.

Building Student Background Knowledge and Skills

It is known that scallops concentrate toxic compounds, most notably heavy metals, in their tissues with an efficiency even greater than that of other bivalves. In 1977 NOAA established an area of Jeffreys Ledge (37 km off Cape Ann, MA in the Gulf of Maine) as a permanent monitoring site because of its offshore location in the midst of a commercial fishing area and its relatively pristine nature. The results of this 1977, survey were published in 1982 by NOAA in Technical Memorandum NMFS-F/NEC-14 and served as a baseline for comparison with our data. Since 1989, NOAA has continued to collect heavy metals data on deep-sea scallops. Using previously collected data such as this helped students in this project appreciate the long-term and collaborative nature of most scientific research.

Initially our 8 student team needed to gain an understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the deep-sea scallop, Plactopecten magellanicus. After student study of primary source articles relating to previous bioassay work involving scallops, a visit to the National Marine Fisheries Laboratory (Milford, CT) for actual scallop dissection work was accomplished. Adductor muscle and digestive gland removal techniques with acid-washed instruments were learned. Instruction in atomic absorption spectrophotometry techniques were also given, as these techniques would later be employed at this laboratory in the heavy metals analysis of the adductor muscles and digestive glands.

Since submersible technology was an instrumental part of this project, again our after-school weekly sessions were focused on literature review, this time on the history, current use, and advantages of this technology in marine research. Planning ahead for data analysis techniques involving means, variance, standard deviations and the student t-test for testing hypotheses were learned by students using practice data. The rationale and application of each of these statistical methods to our project were stressed. Finally, time was spent on learning the protocols for assessing nitrate/nitrite, phosphate, ammonia, dissolved oxygen, and salinity in the water column. Initially these methods were introduced by scientists at NOAA's Avery Point Campus laboratory; however, several afternoons of subsequent practice took place in our own classroom lab. The necessity to be completely proficient with all dissection and water analytical techniques before the actual research cruise took place was stressed, in the context of the expense of ship and submersible time.

At the completion of the school year in June, a four-day trip to Cape Cod in order to visit several Woods Hole Oceanographic laboratories including WHOI's deep-sea coring and archive facility, the National Marine Fisheries Aquarium (an excellent collection of indigenous species to the Gulf of Maine), and the Marine Biological Laboratory and Library exposed students to the variety of marine research projects being carried out in this important oceanographic center. Field equipment for water sampling and analysis was also taken along on this field trip so that final practice of the protocols for dissolved oxygen and salinity could take place using seawater collected from various local beaches. Several evenings were spent on statistical analysis review. Accomodations were in 2 simple cabins with kitchens for group food preparation so that total cost could be kept to a minimum. ($65/student)

Field Research and Data Collection

In early August the group left for our research trip, culminating in the opportunity for each student to dive along with the principal investigator in the 3-person submersible Clelia, collecting deep-sea scallops for heavy metal analysis, and videotaping the ocean bottom marine fauna for later species diversity studies. When not actually making their dive, students were working in the ship's laboratory analyzing water samples as they were brought up from various depths for oxygen, salinity, nitrate/nitrite, phosphate, and ammonia. After the first submersible dive, scallops were available for dissection, removal of the digestive glands and adductor muscles, followed by subsequent weighing, freezing and storage in polypropylene vials for later atomic absorption spectrophotometry analysis at the NMFS lab in Milford. All scallop shells were measured for wing and body size data. Videotapes, nutrient analysis data, and scallop samples were brought back to the school for storage until September when the actual process of data analysis would begin.

Data Analysis: Using Statistics and Graphing/Spreadsheet Software

The most challenging part of most scientific research projects is attempting to understand the meaning of your results. This involves the use of statistics of which most students have minimal understanding. Although students can be easily instructed in the calculation of means, variances, standard deviations, and even more complex statistics such as the student t-test and Chi-Square analyses, they often do not truly understand the meaning of their results because they have no context for their numbers. With a research project such as our environmental monitoring of deep-sea scallops and having past year's data available, we could examine possible changes and trends in these metal concentrations. If changes in metal concentrations were found, the statistical significance of these results could be documented. Students routinely used spreadsheets, graphing calculators, and graphing software to display data. The necessity for each student to be proficient in math could be seen clearly during all phases of data analysis.

Scientific Report Writing and Presentation

The importance of a clear, concise, meaningful final report also became apparent as students realized the importance of communicating their results to the scientific community. The importance of effective writing and basic English skills took on a new meaning, as the students often struggled with various aspects of the background, methods, results and conclusion sections of the report. Circuitous, highly embellished writing often appear in their initial drafts and the ongoing challenge was to pare down the writing into concise statements with focus. A scientific poster was prepared that emphasized the project overview. Presentation software was utilized in the final presentation of findings to an audience of students, scientists, and parents. All students agreed that their involvement in this environmental monitoring project in collaboration with the scientific community was the most insightful, challenging, and rewarding scientific endeavor they had been involved in to date.

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

Throughout this long-term project the teacher has many products of individual student's work, as well as group work, while students are using computers and laboratory apparatus, as they pose questions during the initial phases of planning the inquiry, and as they critique each other's work. Evidence for the quality of a student's ability to reason scientifically comes from the scientific information and conclusions which the student is able to generate from the specific data collected. The quality of the reasoning can be determined by how well connected the line of reasoning is, and the student's ability to explicitly articulate the assumptions made in the investigation. The writing and speaking elements of this investigation also provide many opportunities and evidence for assessing each student's ability to communicate scientific ideas effectively. Project-based, integrated science approaches such as this continue to be very challenging and time-consuming for the instructor(s) to provide for and facilitate; however, it seems that our students are much better prepared for the technological realities of science in the twenty-first century, and they understand more accurately what is required of the discipline we often refer to simply as "science".

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