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Classroom of the Sea takes to the waves
July 19, 1999

he new "Classroom of the Sea" returned last week from its maiden voyage. The marine sciences program, designed for students at the American School for the Deaf, set sail July 9 from Gloucester, Mass., for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, returning on July 14. During this first trip onboard the schooner Mimi, two students assisted Peter Scheifele, a research assistant with the National Undersea Research Center at UConn, in two areas of research. The first project involved marine bioacoustic research, investigating and documenting the effects of noise pollution on whales and dolphins. Some of the sources of noise come from fishing gear dragged along the ocean floor, the hum of engines from whale-watching excursion boats, and the wind on the water.

"Noise pollution is insidious," says Scheifele. "You can't see it, touch it or taste it, so most people just ignore it until something catastrophic such as deafness results."

Whales and dolphins depend on sound to communicate and, therefore, to survive. Stellwagen Bank which is about 25 miles off the Massachusetts coast, is a popular feeding ground for whales at this time of year, and that brings out sightseers in force.

Seventeen-year-old Krystina Carver and 18-year-old Janet Miller didn't need to hear to document the noise pollution. They used imaging techniques that enabled them to visualize sound. A hydrophone, an underwater microphone, transmitted sound signals to a digital audio tape recorder. A spectrum analyzer and specialized acoustic software divided the signals into their component waves. These waves were then displayed on monitors where the young scientists kept watch for changes in sound patterns. They also looked for recognizable communication between marine mammals.

Communication between hearing-impaired humans was the second area of research. "Part of the reason why deaf students can't be mainstreamed in school with a standard class is because, virtually, there is no sign language for scientific terminology," says Scheifele. There is a sign for the word "fish," but there are no signs for specific types of fish or specific types of whales. Nor are there any signs for the equipment the Connecticut students used during their research.

During the voyage, the students and two teachers from the School for the Deaf developed signs they hope will be universally accepted by the deaf community. Linguists from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Gallaudet University will also work with the group, and eventually will have input into whether or not the new signs will be accepted as part of the American Sign Language system.

The National Undersea Research Center at the UConn sponsored the program, along with the National Geographic Society and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Janice Palmer