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Sharing Science with Students

By Caroline Johansen, Oceanography Graduate Student, Florida State University

 plankton-exClass activity of the day:  Making neutrally buoyant "plankton" out of different materials.  Photo credit:  Amelia Vaughan

“Science is cool!” At least that's what most of us scientists think, but not always the first thing that crosses students’ minds when they are learning about mitosis and meiosis, or the chemical formula for photosynthesis. So in Deep-C's “Scientists in the Schools" program that is exactly the message we are trying to get across… science really IS cool!

As a graduate student working in marine science, this opportunity to be a “guest scientist” in this new education program has put my own work into perspective. How do I explain what I do in a way that everyone will understand?, how it is relevant to them?, and why they should care about it?

Although the answers are clear in my own mind, it is not always easy to communicate with non-scientists. For example, when I asked my mother to read the abstract that I was about to submit for a conference, she got about half way through, handed me back the paper saying, “I’m sure it’s great [pause] I don’t get it, but I’m proud of you.” This was not the reaction that I wanted from the students; I wanted them to really think that science is great.

I was pleasantly surprised by my visits to the classroom. My first time using a “smart-board” was a success. The kids were more than eager to help me out when I was not sure of which buttons to press. Amelia Vaughan, our oceanography outreach educator, did an introductory overview of the topic to be discussed during that class period, then it was my turn to explain “what I do” and how it relates to what they are learning.

 sic-presentPresenting in class using the "smart board."  Photo credit:  Amelia Vaughan


The best part about the experience was the interaction with the students while discussing my work in the field. I showed a lot of pictures, asked questions to keep them interested, and I was very surprised by some of their answers. On one of the images that I showed, I pointed out some white specs that were covering the sea floor, and asked if anyone knew what it was and why it was there. I wasn’t expecting the right answer but was curious to see what they would come up with. One boy raised his hand and eloquently stated that “they are bacteria that use chemicals from the hydrocarbon seeps, because they are too deep in the ocean to get energy from sunlight; to create sugars [energy] which the other animals in the food chain can then use.” Exactly, you are absolutely right! Mind you, this boy was maybe 11 years old, but he led me into the discussion of chemosynthesis. Each class period I taught had at least one or two students who left me thinking, “Wow, a future scientist in the making!”

In my experience, the collaboration between Deep-C's education outreach program and the teacher at our host school is very effective and creates an amazing program that I hope will grow to reach other schools. The hands-on activities that Amelia and the other outreach coordinators developed for the classes are interactive and keep the sessions fun while being educational. It is an excellent way for the students to not only hear about and see new topics, but also learn through hands on activities related to the subject matter. It is also an excellent opportunity for the scientist to practice how to communicate his or her own studies in “real people language.” This is a skill that I have come to appreciate.

Caroline Johansen

Caroline Johansen is currently in the second year of her Master's degree in Oceanography at Florida State University. She is studying the Dynamics of Hydrocarbon Vents in the Gulf of Mexico.  Caroline's interest in Oceanography stems from a love of the ocean that was encouraged having grown up in different major ports across the globe.  She has chosen to volunteer as a "Scientists in the Schools" in order to share her enthusiasm for science with middle school students in the Tallahassee area.

The Deep-C consortium is a long-term, interdisciplinary study investigating the environmental consequences of petroleum hydrocarbon release in the deep Gulf of Mexico on living marine resources and ecosystem health. The consortium focuses on the geomorphologic, hydrologic, and biogeochemical settings that influence the distribution and fate of the oil and dispersants released during the Deepwater Horizon accident, and is using the resulting data for model studies that support improved responses to possible future incidents.


A long-term, interdisciplinary study of deep sea to coast connectivity in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.

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