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March 19, 2013
Contact: Shelley Dawicki


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Second graders at North Falmouth Elementary School hold a whale rib as NOEPS staff member Grace Simpkins displays a whale vertebra. Photo credit: Grace Simpkins, NEFSC/NOAA

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NOAA Scientists Bring Marine Mammal Research to Young Students

For students in grades 3 and 4 at East Falmouth Elementary School, February 28 was a day to learn about marine mammals -- especially how these animals use sound and adapt to their environment.

Genevieve Davis and Grace Simpkins from the NOAA Outreach and Education on Protected Species program spent an hour in each of two classrooms, using hands-on activities and interactive technology to teach students about marine mammals,. The third grade class learned about marine mammal acoustics, the fourth grade class about their adaptations to the marine environment.

The classroom visits are part of the new education effort by the researchers at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center's (NEFSC) Protected Species Branch to teach students in grades K-5 about marine mammals and their role in the environment. The students had just completed projects to present at the town science fair March 2, so the visit by Davis and Simpkins had special meaning.

NOAA Outreach and Education on Protected Species, or NOEPS, is an interactive education program created by Davis, Simpkins, and researcher Sofie Van Parijs to share information with local students and excite them about science. Other educators can download teaching materials from the web: http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/psb/NOEPS/.

The idea of developing online education materials was a natural follow-up to an interactive sound exhibit developed by Van Parijs for the Woods Hole Science Aquarium several years ago. The "Sounds of the Sea" exhibit uses touch screen technology plus three-dimensional artifacts to introduce visitors to some of the state of the art research projects being conducted at the NEFSC. Bringing current research to the classroom in person and through a web site was a logical next step.

"Many aspects of our research involve taking photos and recording sounds of marine mammals and other protected species. Sounds and pictures quickly capture the interest and imagination of children as well as adults," said Van Parijs. "We have the ideal resources to get our message across about the need for conservation and careful management of the marine animals in our oceans. We love to use these resources to educate and teach the next generation."

"Whales, Sea Turtles and Sturgeon, O My! Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act" will be offered to the public April 21 (Earth Day) between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the Franklin Park Zoo. Visit the Cambridge Science Festival web site for more information about this and other events and activities scheduled during the festival April 12-21. NEFSC Oceanographer Jim Manning will also be participating in the festival on April 18, offering a workshop for marine educators on student-built ocean drifters.

The NOEPS content is being developed directly from NEFSC research or adapted from existing materials. The curriculum is organized in five topics: bioacoustics, food webs, marine mammal adaptations and climate change, marine mammals in our backyard, and threats facing marine mammals. When fully completed, each topic will have a visual component and lesson plans geared toward different grade levels with a variety of hands-on activities.

Davis, Simpkins, and Van Parijs have each presented one-hour lessons in local elementary schools in recent weeks as they introduce the program. The NOEPS program was also presented at the Falmouth Public Schools Science Fair March 2, and will be featured at the Cambridge Science Festival in April as part of the Earth Day celebration.

"I love the reaction from the students," Davis said of the classroom visits. "Their enthusiasm and interest is wonderful. There's nothing like walking into the classroom with baleen and whale bones and having a chorus of questions and exclamations as to what these strange new structures could possibly be."

"What better reward can there be that having students relate to the message, show interest in what you are presenting, and want to help," Davis said. "I am constantly amazed, and impressed, by their questions and comments."

Simpkins could not agree more. "It is really special to share in this active learning experience where the students are so engaged and excited. I get to share what I love, and I get to see everything through their fresh, new eyes."

"The program is just starting. We are really excited about reaching out to all the Falmouth elementary schools and bringing a bit of what we do into the classroom. Obviously we can't bring a whale in, but hopefully the students feel like they have experienced a little of what a whale experiences in the ocean."

All the lessons are geared to specific grades and topics, and are available online for educators to download as they become available. Background information and a variety of resources are provided, including how each lesson meets Massachusetts State Science Curriculum Standards.

"All the students here live near the ocean, and we want to show them that they can make a difference in marine conservation," Simpkins said. "We want to show them what NEFSC scientists are doing and help them identify with the research being done. Each one of them has the potential to go into marine science if they choose to."

Davis said the ultimate goal is to present a lesson to students in each grade, so that all five topics are covered by the fifth grade.

"We really enjoy visiting local schools, but realize the limits of time and travel and cannot get to them all. By developing the web-based materials and using interactive white boards, which many classrooms have these days, we can reach many more students and public audiences who are interested in learning about protected species, and develop materials for marine mammal species in other parts of the country or beyond."

The "Sounds of the Sea Exhibit" in the Woods Hole Science Aquarium and the NOEPS program were both funded by a NOAA Fisheries Education Program grant.

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The Northeast Fisheries Science Center conducts ecosystem-based science supporting stewardship of living marine resources under changing climatic conditions. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

NOAA Fisheries Service is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation's living marine resources and their habitat through scientific research, management and enforcement. NOAA Fisheries Service provides effective stewardship of these resources for the benefit of the nation, supporting coastal communities that depend upon them, and helping to provide safe and healthy seafood to consumers and recreational opportunities for the American public. Join NOAA Fisheries on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.

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