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The Joy of Discovery: Summer Science Marine Lab Inspires Students

By Holly Rindge, USC Sea Grant


It looks as if the night sky is not just reflected in the dark waters of the cove, but alive, as an infinite number of lights flash on, then off, and are replaced by countless others. “The shimmering sparkles of the water are mesmerizing,” says Linda Chilton, describing the bioluminescence visible tonight in Fishermen’s Cove on Catalina Island. Chilton is enjoying a few moments of relative quiet on the dock. Chilton is the Education Programs Manager at USC Sea Grant, and she has just ushered 16 highly excited—and noisy—high school students into the water for their first night snorkel experience.


The students have come from all over the county to be part of the High School Summer Marine Lab Experience, a program held at USC’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies in partnership with the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations.  The program, including travel, is free for the students. Over the course of a week, students are conducting their own research projects, learning about careers in marine science, building their own remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), snorkeling, kayaking, and exploring the marine protected areas around the island.


The course is designed not just to provide new and challenging scientific experiences, but also opportunities to work directly with scientists and meet people with similar interests and passions. These are key ingredients students need to consider a career in science. Chilton has led the program for USC Sea Grant for nine years and has focused the program on reaching under-represented communities in the sciences for the past five years.


“This has been especially rewarding,” says Chilton. “We strive to guide them in understanding diversity and inclusion, the barriers that have made success more challenging, and some of the resources that will help support them as they go forward.”


One scientific and engineering challenge the students face is designing and building a ROV from scratch. Using PVC pipe, wires, and a sheet of instructions, students have the freedom to vary the ROV designs and are learning the basics of soldering, wiring, and engineering. Students are approaching this with varying degrees of confidence, no prior experience, and have been challenged over several days with crimped wires, stripped wires, and multiple attempts at soldering.


“Having the patience to build the ROVs, making mistakes, and learning from them helped me build up experience, and it’s worth the struggle to learn new things. I am definitely enjoying it,” says 11th grader Nicole Urrutia from Norwalk, CA.


Chilton is inspired by the students’ hope, curiosity, and excitement. “They challenge all of us; their hunger for ocean science is very compelling,” says Chilton. “Their commitment is for themselves – not a grade, or to impress others, but for themselves.”


Students work with and learn from college students, graduate students, and scientists who are researching a variety of issues at the Wrigley Institute, including oyster genetics, aquaculture, diversity of microbes, bioluminescence, oceanography, and much more. This week, students in the Summer Marine Lab are designing research projects investigating bioluminescent plankton, leopard sharks, salinity in aquaponics systems, the food consumption of oysters at varying temperatures, and whether newly hatched squid will feed on local plankton.


Students are carrying out all steps of research by identifying research questions, collecting data, conducting experiments, presenting results, and identifying next steps or new research questions that emerge from their work.  They are also experiencing working with a team of partners that may approach things differently, finding time in a busy schedule to complete work, and, for some, understanding frustration when research results don’t match expectations.  These are critical life and career skills.


Students also have time to learn about challenges to the ocean in a broader policy and management context, including the balance of protecting ocean resources while still allowing access and extractive uses, marine debris, water quality, ocean acidification, overfishing, and sea level rise. These students are part of the generation that will be most impacted by our changing ocean and must understand the challenges and strive to solve these pressing issues.


The Summer Marine Lab program has a lasting impact on students. The program brings career paths into focus that may have seemed out of reach, and one of the most valuable things students gain is confidence that they can succeed in science. Counselors and researchers keep in contact with the students, mentoring and helping to review college application essays.


“I think this program allows students to feel confident in their ability to succeed in the sciences or other fields. We push the students beyond their comfort zones throughout the week, and present them with challenges that they are not used to,” says program counselor Kenia Gomez, who is also a student at USC.  “Even so, they are given the tools they need to succeed and really understand what they are doing. They learn so much about themselves and science in a beautiful island setting.”


Back on the dock, the night air is crisp and cool. Chilton keeps watch on the students and counselors in the bioluminescent ocean; each one has a glow stick attached to their snorkel mask, adding bursts of color to the already sparkling water. How does Chilton measure a successful night snorkel? In part, by the students’ reluctance to leave the water and the massive grins on each face as they slowly climb back onto the dock. 

Read this story on USC Sea Grant’s blog.

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