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ellen by airplane
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Ellen O'Donnell stands by the NOAA Twin Otter.  Photo credit:  Allison Henry, NEFSC/NOAA.
ellen in bubble window
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There's nothing like the view from the aircraft's bubble window. Photo credit: Allison Henry, NEFSC/NOAA.
two whales circling each other
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Two right whales exhibit surface active group (SAG) behavior.  Photo credit:  Tim Cole, NEFSC/NOAA.
class views online talk
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NEFSC's Genevieve Davis (pictured on the screen) talks remotely with 7th grade students at Deerfield Community School.  Photo credit: Ellen O'Donnell.

July 28, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Former NOAA Teacher at Sea Takes to the Air with NEFSC's Aerial Survey Team

For a week in June, Ellen O’Donnell saw a variety of whales and other marine life from the air, flying with Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) aerial survey team members on their North Atlantic Right Whale surveys in the Gulf of Maine. Although O'Donnell didn’t see many right whales, she gained a new appreciation for the role of the survey in marine mammal studies, and had a chance to see a variety of marine life from a different perspective.

“To see these animals from the air is magnificent. You don’t get a sense of their size from a ship, where you might see a small part of the animal, but from the air you see so much more,” O’Donnell said of the flying experience as a Teacher in the Air.  “I did see two right whales on the surface circling each other, exhibiting surface active group (SAG) behavior. I also saw pods of dolphins, lots of basking sharks, a fin whale, and humpback whales.”

A science teacher at Deerfield Community School in Deerfield, NH, O’Donnell had seen whales from a ship as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. In May 2012, she joined the science team aboard the 155-foot NOAA Ship Delaware II for two weeks during one of the Center’s Northern Right Whale surveys off the coast of Massachusetts.  

O’Donnell returned to her classroom in New Hampshire full of ideas on how she could bring to her students what she had learned and experienced. She incorporated lessons on how to identify different species of whales and the sounds they make, and had students analyze recordings of various species. She also realized she could do more on ocean ecology.

In May 2014, she worked once again with Genevieve Davis of the NEFSC’s Protected Species Branch, her roommate on the 2012 whale survey on the Delaware II. O’Donnell’s seventh grade students were working on a sound unit, learning about how sound travels, pitch, intensity, ultrasonic and infrasonic sound, decibel levels, and how human ears work.

O’Donnell found a citizen science project that enabled her students to see how scientists use sound for research by listening to sounds and matching them to spectrograms. She thought of Davis, and with water as the next teaching unit, O’Donnell thought “it would be even cooler if the students could meet an actual scientist that works with sound.”  She and Davis arranged an online meeting.

Using Google Hangouts, Davis spoke to the entire seventh grade class at the Deerfield Community School during two online sessions. Each session was about 30 minutes and included 46 students. “She talked about her job as a scientist, how she got into this type of work and the kind of education you need,” O’Donnell said. “The students asked some great questions, from ‘can whales make sounds with multiple pitch,’ and ‘how far away can you hear their sounds,’ to ‘does the size of the animal affect the pitch of the sound it emits,’ and ‘do we know what the calls mean?’ One boy told me after it was the best science class ever.”

When asked if she was interested in participating in a pilot study for a new NOAA Teacher in the Air program with the NEFSC’s aerial survey team in June, she quickly said yes. “I’ve been in a lot of small airplanes and like flying, but a big positive was flying with some of the same people I worked with on the ship,” O’Donnell said. “I knew them, and that made the experience more comfortable for everyone. It was different, since I was more of an observer than a part of the team as I was at sea, but it was a great opportunity and a nice follow-up to the NOAA Teacher at Sea experience.”

O’Donnell spent June 23-27 with the aerial survey team. On three days she flew about 5 hours each day in the NOAA Twin Otter, surveysing Howell Swell, Franklin Basin, Jordan Basin, and Jeffreys Bank in the Gulf of Maine. Due to high winds and fog, the other two days were spent at the Woods Hole Laboratory, where she had the chance to talk with Tim Cole, aerial survey team lead, for an overview of the group and its mission. “I now understand the reason for the aerial survey team and the importance of its work, and how the aerial work fits with the surveys on the ships,” O’Donnell said. “It put everything in perspective for me.”

Back at home gardening and enjoying the summer, O’Donnell says she has a lot more to share with her students in the fall, like the North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) materials on the web site. “We can use the interactive sightings map and so many other resources. I also have a better understanding of the role winds and weather play in the ability to fly and conduct a survey, and will incorporate these aspects into classroom activities.”

“I’ve done a lot of things, but the NOAA Teacher at Sea program has been the best experience,” O’Donnell said.

Jennifer Hammond, director of NOAA’s Teacher at Sea (TAS) program, says TAS “gives teachers the professional opportunity of a lifetime with a chance to participate in cutting edge science, on the ocean, working side-by-side with world-renowned scientists. Teachers describe this authentic research experience as transformative and one that allows them to bring new knowledge and excitement back to their classrooms.”

Now in its 24th year, the program has provided nearly 700 teachers the opportunity to gain first-hand experience participating in science at sea. This year, NOAA received applications from nearly 200 teachers, and chose 25 to participate in research cruises. The educators selected are able to enrich their curricula with the depth of understanding gained by living and working side-by-side with scientists studying the marine environment.

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