Sixth Graders Experience the Sound of Science at Duke Marine Lab

April 24, 2014

By Sarah G. Sunu, MEM ‘14

BEAUFORT, N.C.  – Most people probably learn about how sound travels in middle school, but not everyone gets to use a hydrophone to listen to snapping shrimp under water. But that’s exactly what the entire Morehead City Middle School sixth grade did last week.

This past Thursday, over 160 students, teachers, and parent chaperones came out to the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C., for a day of “Sound in the Sea,” a set of activities designed to introduce students to the importance of sound for animals in the ocean, particularly marine mammals.

“It gives students an opportunity to see the variety of options they have for careers, and it validates the content we cover in class. They learned all about sound and waves in the beginning of the year, and now they get to come out here and use it—and not in a pretend way, but in a real way,” says Jennifer Coggins, a sixth-grade teacher at Morehead City Middle School.

That real-life experience for students is what inspired Duke PhD students and event organizers Heather Heenehan and Joy Stanistreet, coastal environmental management (CEM) master’s student Sean Stanton, and faculty member David W. Johnston to team up with Coggins and apply for a grant to fund the hands-on research day. Their efforts were rewarded by a $1,500 award from the Duke Center for Science Education, which allowed the purchase of several hydrophones and a ride on the R\V Susan Hudson for every student in the sixth grade.

Other activities included listening to sounds in the water off the Marine Lab dock, analyzing sounds from different marine mammal species, a scientist video panel and question-and-answer session, and figuring out how marine mammals deal with “masking “– when communication is covered up by other noises.  

“I was impressed by how excited, curious, and engaged the students were. I think we hit a good balance between indoor and outdoor activities, with the boat trip being the highlight for everyone,” Stanistreet says.

“You could see as the day went on that they were asking better questions because they’d been to other sections and they had more informed things to ask, which was very cool,” says Doug Nowacek, a Marine Lab faculty member who led one of the sessions.  Students in Nowacek’s “Introduction to Marine Bioacoustics” class helped to staff the event.

Making those connections is a key part of learning, says Coggins. “After experiences like this, they come to class and say ‘I heard something on the news’ or ‘I read something in the paper’ or ‘my dad was talking about this’ and it all of a sudden becomes a part of their life, rather than just being something they learned at school from a book or a video.”

“Taking the time to listen can give students a whole new perspective of their own backyard,” agrees Heenehan.

The team hopes to make the event annual, and is already working to make it accessible to other schools as well. The hydrophones are available for school groups and Marine Lab students and faculty to borrow, and plans are in the works to create an iBook with the activities for classes.

“It really went so well,” says Heenehan. “Jen said the kids are all buzzing about being scientists, so I hope we encouraged some future scientists!”