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July 21, 2010

Sailing for science

ERIE — ERIE — “We never know what we’re gonna find,” David Boughton said as he and a group of students pulled the dredging tool up from the bottom depths of Presque Isle Bay.

Could be “Spanish gold, Indian jewels ... or aquatic organisms,” he said. But “If we happen to strike it rich, the captain gets 50 percent right off the bat.”

Hoisted back onto the ship, the heavy bucket’s opened up; at first glance, what’s inside is a lot of thick, black mud.

“Looking at it from a science perspective, I think we struck gold,” Boughton said as the kids started heartily sifting through the sediment, searching for signs of aquatic life.

“Find anything worth identifying?,” the instructor asked the group.

“Zebra mussel,” one kid called out.

“A cute little shell,” said another.

And on the bottom-sampling went, with each new plunge offering the students aboard Gannon University’s Environaut a chance to deepen their understanding of Lake Erie’s ecosystem.

“I like what I see. I like what I see. You’re scientists now,” said Boughton, a Meadville resident and the maritime educational specialist for Pennsylvania Sea Grant.

He’s one of the engineers of the new partnership between that federally-funded affiliate of Penn State Erie-The Behrend College and Gannon that’s inviting young students from around the region aboard the Environaut for field trips filled with all-hands-on-deck learning. The first group to board the vessel this week included students between the ages of 11 and 15 from around northwestern Pennsylvania and as far away as Massachusetts.

The newly renovated steel-hulled vessel, approximately 50 feet long and powered with a 145 horsepower diesel engine, has long been a feature of Gannon’s faculty and undergraduate student research. It is enhanced with radar, sonar, winched booms, underwater camera, a $40,000 generator and an enclosed laboratory.

Pennsylvania Sea Grant has chartered vessels before for the program, including the U.S. Brig Niagara, but the Environaut has special features.

“The advantage of the Environaut is that students have on-board lab facilities and aquatic sampling equipment designed for science research. The boat's size also allows students to go beyond Presque Isle into Lake Erie for deep water studies,” said Boughton.

Along with on-site overviews of the region’s maritime heritage and history of the vessel, students aboard the Environaut participate in inquiry-based learning at various stations.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said 10-year-old Jacob Merolillo of Cambridge Springs as the boat began making its way back to the landing at Presque Isle. “I liked getting the mud from the bottom of the lake, and going through it and finding all the little organisms. I liked looking for mussels and stuff.”

A top goal of the educational endeavor, according to Boughton and other organizers, is to take environmental learning — especially as it applies to Lake Erie — outside the boundaries of a classroom.

Using the Environaut’s on-board lab facilities and aquatic sampling equipment, “we want to do the best science and give the best opportunities” for participatory learning, Boughton said. “We want to make learning fun.”

National Oceanographic and Aeronautical Administration (NOAA) funding helps Pennsylvania Sea Grant create those opportunities for students. Boughton also continues seeking local sponsors to expand those opportunities to more schools and other groups in the region.

“Our educational mission at Sea Grant is to inspire capable students by creating unique hands-on field opportunities,” he said. “My hope is that by building a bridge between scientists and students focusing on the science and history of the largest fresh water system on earth, participants will become the next stewards of our Great Lakes.”

Pennsylvania Sea Grant was established in 1998 as a partnership between Penn State University, the State of Pennsylvania and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Its stated goals include enhancing coastal tourism and sustainable land-use practices; improving knowledge and understanding of Pennsylvania’s coastlines among teachers and students of all ages; and supporting applied research on issues critical to coastal resources and management.

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