Friday, February 12, 2016

Blue Heron Students Join the Fight against Ocean Acidification and Marine Debris

In early February, fifth graders from Blue Heron School stepped onto Adventuress to learn about ocean acidification, marine debris, and life aboard the ship.

When Winter Programs Coordinator Megan Addison asked students to guess the age of the ship, they proved themselves better guessers than their third grade counterparts a few weeks back (Adventuress is 103—a venerable and historic age that falls slightly short of a thousand). Climbing aboard, these twenty students had the chance to see Adventuress as she is in winter: topmasts laid across the deck, deck boxes shiny with varnish, and a sense of many tasks completed and many remaining as winter crew, volunteers, and high school students work together to prepare the ship for the start of the sailing season in March.

In the deckhouse, a small group of students gathered around Megan as she taught an interactive lesson on ocean acidification. During one of the most impactful portions of the lesson, she had students test the pH of two samples of water. The first sample, straight from Puget Sound, registered as a bright and cheerful blue, which the students identified as a nearly neutral 7.6 (seawater is slightly more basic than freshwater). 

Winter Programs Coordinator Megan Addison discusses the
pH scale with fifth graders from Blue Heron School.
Next, a student named Madisyn took the beaker with the second sample and blew into the water with a straw.  Megan explained that humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2, and that Madisyn was adding high levels of COto the “metaphorical ocean” in the beaker.  When the students tested this sample, the water turned a light yellow-green, indicating a more acidic pH of 6.6.  Megan went on to pass around two oyster shells—a pristine shell in seawater and a shell with pieces flaking off in a more acidic solution.  She explained that the ocean takes up CO2 from the atmosphere and becomes more acidic, and that higher levels of acidity can harm marine organisms—especially larval shellfish that are just beginning to develop their shells.

Although the students entered with a working knowledge of the pH scale, testing the two samples gave them an understanding of what more acidic ocean water actually means for the health of Puget Sound. As with all environmental education aboard Adventuress, Megan and the students also discussed how they can make a difference for the future of our marine environment. Later, Finn recalled the lesson on ocean acidification as his favorite part of the trip: “I liked testing the acidity of the water, because it changed color a lot quicker than I expected after adding CO2.” His friend Joseph chimed in to agree. “I like science,” he said.

Elsewhere on the ship, volunteer extraordinaire Tom Weiner talked about marine debris and microplastics as he passed around a jar of plastic recently collected from a beach on Sucia Island. He described how a dead gray whale that washed up in West Seattle several years ago was found with a stomach full of garbage: 20 plastic bags, sweatpants, a golf ball, and a great deal more.  Asked what they would do differently after stepping off the ship, many students focused on producing less garbage. Said one student, “Try not to buy so much plastic, and if you’re buying a plastic bottle you should reuse or recycle, not just throw it away.”

Blue Heron students head below decks for a tour of the ship.
Below decks, winter crew member Kat gave a tour of the ship, guiding students through the main cabin, galley, bowling alley, and foc’sle. Reactions were split. One student said that he was surprised by how big the boat was below decks; another student was surprised by how small. This was Kyle’s favorite part of the trip.  After explaining that his only experience on the water was taking the ferry, he said, “I liked looking below decks and looking at the engine.” 

After the closing circle, students were a chorus of energy and excitement as they stepped off Adventuress and walked down the dock. Many had big ideas to take home. According to Angel, “If you see any plastic bottles or any garbage on the beach, you can help pick it up.” They returned to their classroom for the rest of the day, loaded up with a few more tools for protecting Puget Sound.

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