Studying Chemistry with Oceanographers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Perkins School for the Blind and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have been collaborating since 2006 to provide high quality education about the ocean to students with visual impairments.  The collaboration began when Dr. Amy Bower, an oceanographer who is blind, called Kate Fraser, a Perkins Science teacher, to ask if Perkins would like to be a part of her outreach to students who are visually impaired. Since then Amy has served as a role model for our students and provided countless hours of education and opportunities for adventure.  As part of this ongoing collaboration, on Wednesday March 25th, the Secondary program Chemistry students visited WHOI.   

Learning About the Increasing Acidity in the Ocean

After greeting Kathy Patterson, coordinator of the WHOI exhibit Center, the students met Oceanographer Dr. Heather Benway.  Heather studies the increasing acidity of the ocean happening due to increased carbon dioxide emissions.  First, using talking color sensors, the students examined red cabbage solution used by chemists to indicate changes in pH levels. (On a numeric scale, a pH of 7 is neutral. Below 7 moving towards zero is increasingly acidic and above 7 increasing towards 14 is basic.) This cabbage solution turned a purple/blue color when added to sea water, indicating a neutral to slightly basic solution. 
student handling shellsThen, the students used straws to blow carbon dioxide (CO2) into the sea water and observed the color change to pink, an indication of increasing acidity. Carbon dioxide is a gas that we exhale, as well as the gas produced by the burning of carbon based fuels.  Heather explained to the students that when carbon dioxide is added to water it forms carbonic acid. Using a talking lab Quest and pH sensor, students also took readings of the sea water before the carbon dioxide was added and then again after blowing into the water.  Readings varied but in each instance the seawater without added CO2 was closer to neutral, one of the ideal conditions for sea life. After the CO2 was added, the pH decreased indicating increased acidity.  For fragile sea creatures, even slight changes in pH, temperature or salinity over time will affect their growth and survival. 
Following the CO2 testing, students examined a variety of live sea creature from the Woods Hole aquarium, including clams, scallops, oysters, and snails, all readily identifiable by the shell shapes and textures. While many students had eaten clams or scallops they had never seen or touched them in their shells.  One of them students was very surprised when one of the clams squirted water at her! As students touched one of the clams, it opened then snapped shut also surprising the class. Another clam extended its foot which some students thought must be a tongue!

Touring the Knorr Research Vessel

Soon it was time for lunch. Students carried their bag lunches with them as they walked form the exhibit center to the dock. There they boarded the Knorr, a recently decommissioned research vessel.  Dr. Amy Bower traveled on the Knorr many times to conduct research at sea. Kate Fraser had the privilege of joining Dr. Bower and other scientist on a research trip to the North Atlantic in the autumn of 2007.  Amy shared stories about her journeys and research with the students. The students ate lunch in the mess hall and they also talked with Chad Smith, Assistant Marine Ops Coordinator who described how the ship served for many years but now was retired and will be sold to another country. A new research vessel is being built for the scientists from Woods Hole to use, containing the latest technology. As they ate and talked students noticed that the chairs and tables were all fastened down and the tables had edges on them to keep items from falling off when the ship rolled with the waves. 
After lunch the students toured the ship including a bedroom and attached bathroom below deck. A few tried out the bed, pronouncing it very comfortable, while others worried that the bed would be too small.  The students also saw the on-board research lab, then traveled out onto the deck to examine antennas, cables, wires and holes in the deck where items could be bolted in place. Chad showed the students the suits that the crew and scientists wear during emergencies when they need to be in the water. Bright red and rubbery in texture, the students marveled that such an outfit could keep someone alive in the water.  

Learning About the Effect of Ocean Acidification on Coral Reefs

student holding onto poleAfter reluctantly leaving the ship to go back to the exhibit center, students meet Hanna Barkley (spelling) a graduate oceanography student who is writing her doctoral thesis on the prevention of damage to coral reefs by ocean acidification. Students examined a variety of corals from the island of Palau, near the Philippines, where Hanna conducts her research.  Hanna explained to the students the symbiotic relationship that the coral animals have with green algae. The algae produce food for the coral and the coral provides a place for the algae to live.  The increasing acidity of the ocean interferes, however, with the formation of calcium carbonate, the hard rock like material that forms the coral reef, as well as the shells of many ocean animals. Students felt coral cores. Imagine inserting a very larger apple corer into an apple and pulling out the core.  Cores of coral are extracted from the coral reef in much the same way. One of the cores was quite solid, dense, and heavy for its size. This was from a healthy coral reef.  The other coral core was similar in size, but was much lighter in weight and its surface had some large holes in it. This decrease in density was due to a decrease in the formation of calcium carbonate.  This core was from an endangered reef!  
The last activity of the day was an experiment that gave the students a chance to model the building of a coral reef today. Then the students built and compared this “reef” to a possible future when the carbonate would be in less abundant supply in the ocean, There would be plenty of calcium available, but not enough carbonate to create the calcium carbonate needed to form the corals’ hard skeleton. This activity, soon to be posted on this website, involved using different shapes of LEGO® to represent the calcium and the carbonates. The students tactually compared the well-built coral reef of today with a smaller reef of the future containing few calcium carbonates. See Understanding the Impact of Carbon Dioxide on the Formation of Coral Reefs

Ongoing Collaboration with WHOI

Over the past 9 years, the collaboration with WHOI has benefited many students and staff.  We hope that this collaboration will continue for years to come. Later this spring additional students will visit Woods Hole as part of their introductory physics course. Those students will take water samples for measuring salinity with the talking sensors, examine sea creatures, go out into the harbor on a fishing boat and listen to sounds under the water with a hydrophone. Dr. Amy Bower will talk with them about her research as a physical oceanographer, and how she uses adaptive equipment in her work. In June a group of public school students as part of an Outreach Program weekend will visit Woods Hole and meet with Amy, and do some hands on oceanography!
chemistry collage



Read more about: Science, STEM