Science teacher Spencer Cody and his students live in rural South Dakota, a place Cody describes as a “pole of inaccessibility.” Geographically isolated from the ocean by 1,000 miles in every direction, Roscoe, South Dakota, is as far from the coast as it’s possible to get in North America.
“We really do have a connection to the ocean,” explains Cody, who has gone to sea on research vessels through the NOAA Teacher at Sea Program. “But, you know, if you’re from South Dakota, and especially if you’re a student, you just really don’t understand the significance of it.”
Cody and his colleagues aren't offered professional development about ocean and coastal ecosystems, and many of his students have never left the state, much less visited the ocean. Though his students are connected to the ocean through the fish they eat and the planet they live on, they have few opportunities to learn about it. “It’s easy to think we live on an ocean-less planet,” says Cody, “because you see an ocean of grass.”
So, for spring break in 2019, the Teacher at Sea Alumni Association and the NOAA Fisheries lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi, supported a field trip that allowed 11 sixth through 12th grade students from Roscoe, South Dakota, to travel to the Gulf of Mexico to see the ocean for the first time.
After 22 hours on the road, students piled off their school bus in Pascagoula for a behind-the-scenes look at marine and coastal research. Students toured NOAA Research Vessel Oregon II, interacting with scientists and getting a feel for life on board. They ventured out onto the muddy and productive Gulf waters on R/V Caretta. As pelicans wheeled around the ship, students helped sort and tally the contents of a trawl teeming with squid, shrimp, crabs, and thirteen different species of fish.
“I think it’s always easier to pair, you know, why you’re doing something and... why you would necessarily want to conserve or protect that animal if you have a chance to see them up close and personal,” said Kristin Hannan, a fisheries biologist for Riverside Technologies in support of NOAA Fisheries.
The next day, students toured the University of Southern Mississippi Marine Education Center. They explored the surrounding marshy forests and dissected shark specimens. “I like love hands on stuff,” said student Hope Hoerner. “I want to be a shark specialist.” Finally, they visited a local aquarium and toured the local bayou on a swamp boat.
“When I think about this strip, what I’m excited about is that maybe we’ll see some of these students pursue science careers as a result,” said Cody. Prior to the trip, fewer than half of the students were interested in STEM-related careers; after the trip, more than half were interested. “This trip has given me a bigger picture of what I’ll be doing in my future,” said Hoerner. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do stuff like this.”
Cody and his students returned to South Dakota with a deeper understanding of the coastline, creatures, and careers that can be found in the Gulf of Mexico — an ecosystem a world away from the farms and fields of the Great Plains. Cody, like so many other educators in the Teacher at Sea Alumni network, will keep engaging students with experiences building on his own time at sea. “Science is kind of the VIP backstage pass to understanding the universe, and I can’t resist that,” says Cody.
This story was featured in the Fiscal Year 2019 NOAA Education Accomplishments Report.