Off the Deep End: Reflections on my time as a NOAA Teacher at Sea


Sunset/Sunrise over a fjord in Kodiak, Alaska

The Bering Sea is cold, even in June. The water temperature is just above freezing in summer and the spray across the deck of our ship in rough weather can feel so cold it’s startling.  Of course, the weather in the Bering can get rough. It’s been 10 years, and I remember it so well.  I can still hear the calm sound of the crew’s voices as I looked at ocean swells as tall as buildings towering over us. I thought we would never get through those waves; but for the crew, this was just another work day. Our ship kept plowing on through those storms without complaint; so much steadier than I was. I think of the smell of salt, fish, and diesel fumes from the engine greeting me as I came on deck at 4 A.M. to start my long shift. I remember the rough feel of the harness around my waist which I used to tie myself to the ship while I helped deploy equipment. I recall how grateful I was for that harness as we leaned off the deck and the waves tried in vain to ease me over the side into the waiting water below. These are powerful memories, for me and for my students, because science is not always done in a lab. To understand the world, you must go out into it … not to where it is comfortable or easy, but to where you can find data you need. Sometimes that means going to places like the Bering Sea. That simple truth is something which eludes too many students. They walk away from classrooms and labs thinking that science is an indoor pursuit; the domain of geeks and nerds who forgo a life of adventure, choosing instead to bury themselves in a sunless world of test tubes, lab coats and computers.

We can offer students a more realistic, better-informed perspective. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Teacher At Sea Program helps teachers and students understand and participate in the real adventure which science offers. Teachers become part of the science crew on a research ship. I’ve been out with them on the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska and along the northeastern United States. Teachers work alongside the scientists, gathering data, which for me meant processing different species of fish that were brought up in our various nets (you use different kinds of nets depending on what you are trying to catch, and where in the water column you are trying to catch it). We counted, weighed and measured fish.  Sometimes we took samples and packed them to go back to the lab.  I handled rays, crabs, lobsters, and sea stars of more types than I can describe. These were some of the most beautiful wildlife I have ever seen.  I sorted through the strange creatures our nets dragged up from the deep. There was one kind–Monkfish from the northeastern US–which seemed to have two full sets of remarkably sharp teeth, an outer and a set further inside its wide, gaping mouth. I haven’t eaten any Monkfish since. I saw a whale leap with its whole body out of the water and come crashing down three times in a row, and then disappear again into the depths in less time than it took for me to pick up my camera. I saw a long slow sunset in a quiet fjord in Alaska that somehow, unexpectedly, at least for me, gave way to a sunrise and then to a full day. That midsummer night in Alaska was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. I spent several glorious nights working alone on the back deck of a ship in the Gulf of Maine, surrounded by a pod of dolphins that swam circles around our ship all night long.  No matter how fast our ship tried to go, those dolphins never seemed to get tired. At least they never complained to me.

NOAA Ship Miller Freeman arrives in Dutch Harbor, Alaska

Back home, my students got to see all of that, too. They read my blog posts and saw my photos while I was away. In real time, they sent questions to me and the scientists. Whenever my students stumped me (which happened so many times), I had an entire staff of scientists to call on. The interactions where I mediated between the scientists and the students are some of my favorite moments in my nearly three decades as a teacher. One fifth-grade class designed an experiment to test how lobster shells reacted to vinegar – a weak acid –  and sent their results to a scientist on our ship. He was studying how lobster shells react to the changes in ocean chemistry (called ocean acidification) which happens when the carbon dioxide we add to our air gets absorbed into sea water.

Jacob Tanenbaum helping deploy nets in the Gulf of Alaska

When you work with one superb program in a government agency, and see the extraordinary benefits to the local community of that participation, it can lead to participation in other programs which they offer. I’ve been a Peer Leader in NOAA’s excellent Climate Stewards Education Program for the last several years. That program offers teachers advanced training and certification on climate science directly from scientists working in the field, and has been an invaluable resource in my work. I also had the opportunity to work with NOAA’s Teacher on the Estuary training program. I began attending NSTA’s national conference as part of my participation with NOAA. I then presented as part of NOAA’s NSTA workshops and later wrote my own proposals for presentations and began presenting those materials at NSTA. For me, participating in NOAA’s programs has been transformative. You should do it, too.

Jacob Tanenbaum and friend on the Bering Sea

Jacob Tanenbaum teaches third fourth and fifth grade science and technology in Cottage Lane Elementary School in Blauvelt, New York, just north of New York City.  His writing has appeared in Scientific American, Education Week, the New York Times Dot Earth Blog and others. 



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1 Response to Off the Deep End: Reflections on my time as a NOAA Teacher at Sea

  1. Taylor Planz says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience with Teacher at Sea! I applied for the 2018 Field Season and am checking every day for updates! Have you used any of the ocean science you learned in a physical science context? It’s easy to find lessons from other teachers that focus on the ocean from a life science perspective but not so easy to find the same for physics or chemistry concepts. Just curious about your thoughts!

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