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High School Students Learning Science
at Sea in Silent Classroom
February 7, 2000

It's a cold, winter day on board UConn's research vessel, Connecticut. But it doesn't diminish the enthusiasm of three seniors from the American School for the Deaf. They're about to take a test, and no paper or pencil is needed.

The students are participating in Classroom of the Sea, a three-year science education pilot program developed by UConn scientists at the National Undersea Research Center, in collaboration with the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.

The students are at the controls of a remote-operated vehicle and are trying to maneuver the robot along the floor of Long Island Sound. While using controls from on board the ship, they must drive the vehicle in a straight path for 10 seconds, change its direction and return it to the ship. The students are being checked on how well they accomplish the task, and it will be part of the science grade they receive for the term.

Classroom of the Sea relies as heavily on content as it does on hands-on, practical experience. Students receive lectures and homework, and much of their laboratory work occurs out on the water.

"Deaf students seem to perform best when they get the visual and tactile experience, and then they can tag it to something practical," according to Peter Scheifele, the research center's education director.

The partnership began five years ago when students and teachers from the American School for the Deaf began taking part in the Aquanauts Program, an educational outreach program run by Scheifele and Ivar Babb, director of the National Undersea Research Center. It's funded by several private foundations, along with Connecticut Sea Grant, which pays for the ship time.

The Aquanauts Program, still in existence today, exposes high school students and teachers from around the state to hands-on oceanographic research. They become members of a research team that travels to sites in Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine, and are exposed to complex ecological and environmental subjects and issues.

For the past five years, students have been collecting data on the impact that noises from whale-watching boats and other vessels have on whales. The research is continuing as part of the Classroom of the Sea, and the results will be reported next spring.

The Aquanauts experience proved so successful for students at the American School for the Deaf, Scheifele was asked to tailor a program for them.

"Teachers recognized something good was resulting from the students who took part in Aquanauts," he says. "Test scores in math and science have been increasing, and it used to be that one or two students went off to college, but in the past four years, more students are expressing interest in pursuing higher education."

Scheifele worked with the school's teachers to develop an innovative curriculum that meets state education standards. Simultaneously, Babb hammered out the administrative and funding issues which, among other things, would allow Scheifele to work as a mentor in the school three days a week. For the duration of the pilot program, if not longer, Classroom of the Sea is replacing the previous science curriculum.

Mary Laporta, a teacher at the American School for the Deaf for 12 years, helped create the program. "For these students," she says, "this science program is like they've never had before and it far exceeds public education programs. Our kids are better prepared for college than ever before."

What they are getting through a marine sciences education is lessons involving physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and computer science.

So along with lessons in thermodynamics and electricity, they are being trained to operate sonar equipment and the underwater robot. It's an education that comes to life when they board the Connecticut and put their knowledge into action.

There's no better success story than 18-year-old Janet Miller of Ansonia. She's been part of the Aquanauts program for several years and is now a Classroom of the Sea student. Because of her research experience she has become well educated about noise pollution and whales. In several weeks, she'll get to show off her abilities at Mystic Aquarium where she'll conduct noise level tests on a pool that is home to a new beluga whales exhibition. Next year, she hopes to be a freshman at UConn.

After proving Classroom of the Sea is a success in West Hartford, the goal is to offer the curriculum, lesson plans and teaching aids to other schools for the deaf around the country. Babb and Scheifele are also making plans and seeking funding to conduct live satellite broadcasts of Classroom of the Sea from the deck of UConn's research ship.

And if that's not ambitious enough, the two are working with the Neag School of Education to determine if the Classroom of the Sea curriculum is an effective tool in teaching science to all students.

Janice Palmer