Indiana State University Newsroom

Professors developing pilot program to teach teachers, students about oceanography

May 2, 2014

Indiana State University science professors are taking a page from moms who puree vegetables and mix the nutrition -- undetected -- into tasty dishes for their children. Only instead of vegetables, it's physics, chemistry and biology served in the form of marine science.

"Sometimes when people think about physics or chemistry or biology or geology, it's just boring old science. Yet, when they think of oceanography, they think of dolphins and whales and sharks and tsunamis -- and we can incorporate all branches of science into discussions about these and other aspects of oceanography," said Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State.

Rathburn recently ventured to San Diego with Carolyn Wallace, associate professor of science education and biology and director of the Center for Science Education at Indiana State, Steffen Wilkinson, an earth science student at ISU, and Melissa Jordan, a seventh grade science teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Terre Haute.

Their objective was to gather hands-on experiences and develop lessons for a pilot program aimed at helping Indiana middle school teachers incorporate more hands-on marine science lessons in their classrooms. The group is planning a workshop for a small group of teachers this summer, with hopes of getting additional funding and then spring boarding the pilot program into a much larger scale.

"We were able to see a number of different things firsthand that would enable a middle school or high school teacher to convey the excitement of science to students," Rathburn said. "One of the reasons we chose to show them oceanography is because oceanography is very interdisciplinary. If you're a science teacher and you're really not so interested in physics, but you like biology, you can still use oceanography and focus on that (biology) aspect. Or you can choose to focus on the physics aspects of oceanography."

For Jordan, the experience was everything she'd hoped for.

"I've been on this path of realizing experiential learning is not only for the students, but also for the teachers themselves. I became the learner on this trip. It also reinforced what I do in the classroom," Jordan said. "I saw things that I had already been teaching, but now I have a picture of that fault line and that hanging and foot wall that I can now share with them. So, you have that story that is more meaningful to you and becomes more meaningful to your students."

Jordan is no stranger to experiential learning. Last summer, she traveled to Peru with other science teachers from around the country to explore the Amazon; she plans to repeat the trip this summer.

"The experience itself helps those two things - being the learner and having meaningful experiences. Those stories come back and those stories are tied to the science. Students, who hear stories that come from a personal place, tend to remember it better," she said. "The students realize, ‘This is great. This actually happens. This isn't something that's just in the textbook.'"

During the trip, the group met with University of San Diego faculty and toured the Anza-Borrego Desert, where they visited geological sites, including Fossil Canyon. They also explored Canyon Sin Nombre where they encountered geological features such as cross-cutting strata and rock folds, and the landscape's flora and fauna. Why the desert, you may ask? Well, the desert, at one time was under water. Later in the trip, group members were able to connect the marine fossils they saw there with the living counterparts in the ocean, Rathburn said.

The group journeyed to the La Jolla area, where they saw the protected salt marsh at Torrey Pines Beach, a cliff face and fossils. When they encountered evidence of ancient sea level changes in the cliff, Rathburn said he "was able to explain it right there, using beach sand as a chalkboard."

At Birch Aquarium, which is the public outreach center for Scripps Institution of Oceanography, they paid extra attention to the hands-on displays, such as touch tanks, a shark eggs exhibit and a kelp forest with indigenous creatures. The group hopes to recreate these types of teaching tools by developing a hands-on, mobile aquarium system for the summer workshop -- and beyond.

"On the beach, we saw lots of different types of seaweed," Rathburn said. "To this group, it was very, very different. ‘What is that?' That's seaweed. ‘Well, what is that?' That's seaweed, too. And here's part of the kelp forest. ‘What's that big bulge?' That's part of a system to help keep it floating. We were able to see these things without having to snorkel or dive."

Another adventure took them out on a Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel, which trawled samples from along the bottom and in mid-water, collecting a wide variety of strange deep-water creatures. They worked together with Scripps researchers and graduate students, processing samples, obtaining sea water for future analyses and profiling the ocean for conductivity, temperature and depth. Each procedure was a hands-on opportunity for the group.

The fact the group's luggage was "way over weight" from samples they collected was a good indicator of the trip's success, Rathburn said.

"This program will bring science in that we typically don't have in our curriculum for seventh grade. Something like this will give even more opportunity to get science to them that is even more relatable, more easy to understand, to hopefully hook them," Jordan said. "Since the students don't get a lot of (oceanography), they're going to be very engaged."

Being involved in an excursion with different types of educators -- scientists, researchers and professors -- allowed Jordan to bounce ideas off them and get a different perspective.

"It was an awesome experience. I'm glad they involved me in the project," Jordan said. "It was cool to share many aspects of my job with professors and grad students. They were surprised that the things I'm teaching, they're reinforcing in the college classroom. It was good for them to hear we're trying to give students those basics science concepts that they'll learn on a deeper level in college.

"It was really renewing for a teacher who is passionate about her job," she added. "I'm part of something bigger. It makes me want to find ways to make my experiences even more meaningful."


Photos: -- From left, Carolyn Wallace, associate professor of science education and biology and director of the Center for Science Education at Indiana State, Melissa Jordan, a seventh grade science teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Terre Haute, Steffen Wilkinson, an earth science student at Indiana State, and Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State. - The group tours the desert with Warren Smith, of the University of San Diego, who grew up in the desert. - The Pacific Ocean is seen during a research trip to San Diego by Terre Haute educators, who were gathering hands-on experiences to develop lessons for a pilot program aimed at helping Indiana middle school teachers incorporate more marine science lessons in their classrooms.

Contact: Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State, 812-237-2269 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or