Laboratory Schools students ‘get their hands in the water’ at MBL

Nets in hand, 12 University of Chicago Laboratory Schools students spent a day in late August on Naushon Island off the coast of Woods Hole, Mass., where they scouted and collected marine organisms with the help of Dave Remsen, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Marine Resources Center. After boating back, the group took their finds into an MBL lab for further study.

“We wanted the students to jump right in and get their hands in the water, to take full advantage of Woods Hole in this short period of time,” said Daniel Calleri, one of the Laboratory Schools’ high school science teachers.

The Laboratory Schools sophomores, juniors and seniors spent a week at the MBL with Calleri, Sharon Housinger, another Lab science teacher; and Alexzandra Wallace, the Laboratory Schools’ manager of special projects and outreach. The teachers had come to the MBL in 2014 to explore a possible collaboration with Bill Reznikoff, the MBL education director, and this summer’s stay was the successful result.

“This is another example of the MBL’s expanding relationship with the University of Chicago,” said Huntington Willard, president and director of the MBL. “We were happy to help introduce the Laboratory Schools students to the Woods Hole environment and the study of local marine organisms.”

In their MBL lab, the students observed fertilization of sea squirt eggs and, through the microscope, watched the embryos divide. They also experimented with neural stimulation of squid skin, thanks to inspiration from the YouTube hit “Insane in the Chromatophores” by Backyard Brains, which was recorded at the MBL in 2012. In addition, they learned how and why other organisms at the MBL are studied, including frogs, horseshoe crabs and microscopic animals called rotifers.

After being chosen to visit the MBL through a competitive application process, the Lab students prepared by taking a quarter-long marine biology course. In Woods Hole, their teachers were thrilled to bring them into the ecosystems they had studied in their textbooks. “It was like instant connection and understanding,” Housinger said. “I was thinking this morning when they were in the lab looking at the embryos, that they probably learned more embryology in two hours than we would have been able to teach in two weeks in the classroom.”

The students also saw at MBL that there are many ways to engage with marine biology, such as through training in physics (leading to microscope development) or chemistry. “For biology, traditionally they are taught, ‘Here’s this list of words, memorize it, and now you know marine biology,’ and it’s no wonder why people don’t go into it,” Calleri said. “It’s never presented as a field that has opportunity for professional growth and development. But at MBL, you get to see that writ large.” The MBL showed students who are starting to form collegiate aspirations several real-life examples of careers in the sciences.

A number of MBL faculty and staff members offered their time to interact with the Lab students to ensure they each had a well-rounded experience. The faculty and staff included Beth Simmons, Education Department; Dave Remsen and Scott Bennett, Marine Resources Center; Shalin Mehta and Hiro Ishii, Bell Center; Kristin Gribble, Bay Paul Center; Ivan Valiela, Ecosystems Center; and Esther Pearl, National Xenopus Resource.

The teachers hope an MBL trip will become part of the annual curriculum at the Laboratory Schools. “The students are seeing the MBL motto of ‘Biological Discovery’ in real-time,” Wallace exclaimed.