BURRILLVILLE – Burrillville Middle School 6th-grade science teacher Patricia Lapierre knows how to tie a variety of boating knots.
Lapierre also has seen first-hand how high tech equipment is used to compile data on soil and water samples aboard a research vessel, and exactly what type of cutting-edge work scientists and graduate students conduct off the coast of Block Island.
And it’s knowledge she says she’s proud to bring back to her classroom.
Lapierre, a 24-year teacher at the school, took part in the Rhode Island Teacher at Sea program over the summer, spending three days gliding along the state’s southern coast on the research ship Endeavor.
The program, operated through the University of Rhode Island’s graduate school of Oceanography, aims to build partnerships between ocean scientists, researchers and teachers who live and teach in the state. The relationships, and access to new experiences, are used to enhance classroom learning.
“It gave me this new energy,” Lapierre told NRI NOW. “All of the research we were doing fit so well with my curriculum.”
The experience has given Lapierre plenty of knowledge to share. The teacher created a book for students documenting the trip, with photos of everything from the data-gathering process, to how plankton looks under a microscope.
She also brought back things like soil samples – taken at varying oceanic depths – and the results of some experiments, including a styrofoam cup, which shrunk to around a tenth of its original size when sent below sea level.
Funded through federal and state grants, the free cruise is open to all full-time K-16 educators who live in the state. Local scientists and research students are contacted in advance with offers to use the same vessel in hopes to give participants access to a variety of experiences.
Meteorologist and weather reporter T.J. Del Santo was aboard Lapierre’s cruise, giving weather reports daily from the boat.
Lapierre heard about the program through her professional contacts as a GEMS-Net teacher leader. She applied for the program in April, and learned in May that she was one of seven state educators selected for an August stint on the Endeavor.
The group, she said, was made up of several different grade-level teachers in a variety of disciplines.
“It was very eclectic,” Lapierre said. “The great thing about the mix was figuring out how we could each use the experiences in the classroom.
The teachers actively took part in the ship work, from compiling data and doing hands-on experiments, to trying their hand at boat mechanics.
“Any experience you wanted to make out of it, you could make out of it,” Lapierre said. “Really, it was about your comfort level.”
Under clear skies and calm seas, the group traveled south of the Block Island coast, spotting animals including pinky whales and flying fish during down time. But most of the time, they were working, or staying up until 11 at night to share and discuss their experiences with their shipmates, doing a week’s worth of work and three days at sea.
“We were exhausted,” Lapierre said.
That work included taking water and soil samples to see how factors such as depth affect consistency, temperature and more at 55 meters versus 2,400 meters down.
Back in the classroom, Lapierre’s students got to use the samples to see how depth can affect things such as texture and smell.
The group filtered and collected debris from water samples and viewed their findings under microscopes. They discussed subjects such as how global warming can affect weather.
At one point, Lapierre said that dozens of balloons drifted by, sparking a conversation about pollution.
“It just generated all these questions and it’s great to bring that back to the classroom,” she said.
The teachers examined plankton samples, learned to tie knots and speak ship language, and took part in life boat drills, jumping into wet suits.
“It helped me to remember what it feels like to be a student,” Lapierre said. “The best way to learn is hands-on.”
On the final morning, the crew made ship coast around the Block Island windmills for several hours at sunrise, another sight that sparked conversation and made Lapierre appreciate life in the Ocean State.
“This is Rhode Island,” she said. “This is right where we live.”
She’s hopeful the intellectual curiosity she rediscovered on the endeavor will be contagious, and it seems it just might be catching on. Her miniature styrofoam cup, decorated with the letters “BMS,” sparked a variety of questions from students last week.
“We want them to yearn for the learning,” she said.
One student asked if the knowledge that styrofoam shrinks below sea level could be used to help solve the long-standing problem of pollution from the substance.
“That’s a higher level question,” Lapierre said. “These are timely experiments.”
“The biggest takeaway is the energy you get from it,” she added, noting of her students, “I hope they see that I love it, and I can rub a little bit of that off on them.”