Virtual oceans

Every winter, M Groupers spend a few weeks immersed in oceans – virtually. We begin by studying ocean geography and topography, and then do a quick survey of marine biodiversity. This year, the first part of the unit was presented entirely on line, with students logging in for a quick introduction to each topic and then practicing research skills by looking for information. The constraints of distance and time in this pandemic year are always frustrating, but they were mitigated by my favorite part of this exercise: learning alongside my students as they discover new marine features and species that I have never heard of.

A case in point: zigzag coral, or Madrepora oculata. At the end of our virtual 2 weeks, before heading off for winter break and then reconvening in person for the new year, each student chose a marine species as the centerpiece for a multi-faceted research project. While most students selected animals that were familiar to me – orca, blue whale, sea otters – one boy chose this striking coral. He worked diligently during class to unearth facts about its range and habitat, diet, life cycle, and conservation status, arranging these into informational slides for his report. During recesses and group walks, he shared his new knowledge with me: “Did you know that this type of coral doesn’t live in tropical places? It likes deeper, colder water.” And new concerns: “I’m really worried about the coral’s survival. Fishing nets that drag on the ocean floor are ruining colonies!”

The art teachers and I have always collaborated on the ocean project, with students creating beautiful shadow boxes that featured their animals. This year, we were fortunate to be teaching M Group during the same time, but for the art component, Sean introduced students to a new animation technique using Google Slides. Students drew their research animals, along with habitat features like aquatic plants, prey and predators. They then photographed and imported them into the slides program, where they learned how to design a virtual fish tank and develop action involving their drawn figures.

Students who completed their research and animation projects devoted their final classes in science to making 3D dioramas that showcased animals in their habitats.

One of the final highlights of this collaborative ocean unit was a virtual field trip. We would normally take this group to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, but this year we were able to schedule an hour for a personal tour of the Aquarium’s Maryland Mountains to the Sea exhibits. This enabled both virtual and in-person students to get an up-close view of terrapins, hogsuckers, groupers, and other Maryland species, while being able to ask the Aquarium staff a multitude of questions.

As has become our custom this year, M Group celebrated our final class of this science rotation with a fire pit and marshmallows, talking about what we had learned in the past few weeks. While some marveled that they had never expected to be able to create their own animations, others reflected on the animals that they had gotten to know virtually through their research. Several of these species were threatened or endangered. Would they ever have the chance to see them in real life? The boy who studied zigzag coral has already told me that he hopes to someday be a marine conservationist. I think he’s on his way.