DURHAM, N.C. – A group of nearly 90 sixth-grade students from Morehead City Middle School gained firsthand knowledge about some of the most pressing issues in marine science and conservation – and the cutting-edge tools and technologies scientists are using to study them – during a daylong field trip to the Duke University Marine Lab on Nov. 4.

And they had a lot of fun doing it. 

The day’s schedule included a demonstration of drones and other robots now being used in marine and coastal research, and a session focused on new technologies being developed at the Marine Lab for growing algae for food and fuel, in which students helped grow the algae and then had the chance to sample food made from it.  

Students also took part in activities where they learned about marine bioacoustics, coral reef ecology and topography, and environmental and human impacts on fisheries and marine ecosystems.

Dana Hunt, assistant professor of microbial ecology, organized the field trip.

“Sixth graders are naturally curious about the marine environment. They have a natural affinity for the ocean, especially living here at the beach,” she says. “But many schools simply don’t have the resources to bring cutting-edge science into the classroom. So that’s our goal – to give these kids hands-on, highly immersive activities that connect them to the marine environment and spark an interest in learning more.”

Students took part in numerous learning activities in the Marine Lab’s classrooms and laboratories during the field trip. Photo: Nathan Miller

The Marine Lab organizes field trips for local K-12 schools throughout the year.  Activities and lessons for each trip are designed to be age appropriate and to dovetail with the students’ classroom curriculum.

For last Friday’s trip, that meant having the students learn about bioacoustics – how marine animals use sound to communicate or navigate – by dropping hydrophones and other scientific recording tools into the water off the Marine Lab’s dock and analyzing what they heard.

It also meant attempting to mimic the sounds marine mammals make, calculating how water flows over and through coral reefs, and learning about fisheries management through a “fishing” game where students decided whether to harvest candy “fish” or leave them in the ocean to reproduce, as well as taking part in sessions on the use of drones in marine science and conservation, and on growing algae for fuel and food.

Before leaving, the students enjoyed a tour of the Marine Lab campus to see classrooms, research laboratories and a college dormitory.

Many faculty members, staff members and graduate and undergraduate students from the Marine Lab assisted Hunt in organizing the field trip and serving as leaders for each session. Volunteers for the event included Lisa Campbell, Dave Johnston, Zackary Johnson, Everette Newton, Luke Fairbanks, Bailey Slagle, Courtney Swink, Sarah Loftus, Melissa Duvall, William Cioffi, Dave Hass, Jillian Wisse, Nicola Quick, Joseph Fader, Anastasia Quintana, Joy Stanistreet, Dominick Brugnolotti, Amy Kirkland, Katie Wood, Rebecca Smith, Christine Martin, and Walter Torres.