Mixing learning, fun in lab

Science: An elective high school course gives students hands-on experience with marine animals.

October 22, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Hammond High School senior Dan Heflin couldn't wait to dissect a shark, so he signed up for Ray McMillan's elective course in marine science.

"It's my last year, and I wanted to do different things," the 17-year-old said. "I wanted to dissect things."

McMillan, who has been teaching the course for six years, said science electives allow students more hands-on experience. "In marine science, even though we have a curriculum from the county, it gives you a lot of leeway to do extra things. That's why you're pretty much able to do a lot of labs. That's something that the kids really enjoy."

In the late 1990s, the Howard County Board of Education sought to add high-interest science electives to its high school offerings.

"The county wanted another upper-level elective," McMillan said. "Marine science is one of the big upcoming fields. This is something the kids wanted, and it's been real successful the entire time."

Marine science is offered at five other high schools in the county: Atholton, Howard, Long Reach, Mount Hebron and River Hill. Terri Showers, a science resource teacher from the central office, said the popularity of the elective has a lot to do with those who teach it. "They're comfortable with hands-on activities and teaching the kids how this course relates to situations in the everyday world," she said.

Marine and freshwater creatures are kept in tanks and homemade jug aquariums in the classroom. McMillan hopes to take the class to Sandy Point State Park next week to collect mud crabs, blue crabs, minnows and white perch. All are returned to their natural habitats at the end of the school year.

"First, we learned about how fish - you can't just pour them into the regular water," junior Sara Keeter, 16, said. Students prepared saltwater for their tanks "so it wasn't a big habitat change. We're trying to learn to keep our fish healthy," she said.

This week, students are studying microscopic paramecium. Later, they will move on to sponges and eventually fish and sharks, learning the anatomy of each. "They're real enthused," McMillan said. "They actually get very few classes where they do real science."

Students viewed the creatures on slides they stained. "We're just looking at the motion [of the paramecium]," Sara said. "It's just going everywhere, like a lot of rice scattered around."

The class examined the eating process of these life forms by looking for and observing the animals' food vacuoles, and drew pictures of the eating process as a part of the lab. Twelfth-grader Jessica Neumeyer, 17, said the stain "mixes in, and they eat it. We watch it go into their bodies."

She said she likes to study aquatic life under a microscope because "we never get to see it with our own eyes. It gets interesting after watching them a little."

"It's actually about learning all the different specimens, how they work, how they function in a different environment," said senior Brittany Limmer, 17, who hopes to study marine biology in college.

According to McMillan, students going on to major in marine science is not unusual. "We've had several students who've taken the apprenticeships at the aquarium [in Baltimore]," he said.

The class helps students to "develop knowledge in the field and then an appreciation of not only the organism and the environment they live in. That's one of the reasons I try to use things out of the bay," McMillan said.

The class is involved in programs to save the Chesapeake Bay, including growing celery grass to transplant there. This year, students hope to grow oysters from eggs and later seed them in the bay.

Dan Heflin said he signed up for the course not only for the chance to dissect a shark, but because he likes animals. "We actually keep things - living - and we have to take care of it ourselves, feed it every day. It's hard work," he said. But, he added, "I have fun."

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