St. Petersburg students learn research skills at summer science camp

Students and volunteers study marine life in a quadrat on Hungry Point Beach. Photo/Angela Denning

The Petersburg Marine Mammal Center held a week-long science camp for middle school students last week. It was the first of its kind to allow young teenagers to learn research techniques in the field. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports for Petersburg:

It’s low tide at Hungry Point Beach and the ground is covered in rocks and slippery brown and green seaweed. Several students huddle in a group, staring at the floor.

“Oh, the green sea urchin!”

Barry Bracken announces the discovery. He’s an adult volunteer in the camp, one of many science professionals helping out this week. He is a retired fish and game biologist.

“And we have a hermit crab,” Bracken said.

“Oh cool!” said a student.

They watch all the sea life, inside a small white plastic frame on the ground known as a quadrat.

“It’s just a very classic way of sampling,” Bracken said.

“So just calculating what could be in a given area?” I asked.

“Exactly, yeah” he said. “And particularly seeking diversity and abundance.”

Bracken picks up the frame and throws it a few feet away from the group.

He and a student remove blades of seaweed, flip a rock, and expose dozens of tiny creature-like slugs.

“Probably a little over 200 little miniature sea cucumbers just in that little square,” Bracken said.

During camp, students visit several sites on Mitkof Island, learning from local experts about different types of ecosystems and the life within them. On the program, hiking on trails through forests, muskegs and streams, studying salmon, learning research techniques and whale watching.

Sunny Rice, board member of the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center, developed the science camp program. She also works for the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. The local center has been around for 20 years and in addition to responding to entangled marine mammals, the nonprofit also seeks to educate the community about science.

Rice says the camp is like an experimental outdoor classroom for older youth.

“We wanted to give the kids something to do with a bit of, introduce them to a bit of science, but in a really fun, excursion-type environment,” Rice said.

And the students take the scientific part quite seriously. Megan O’Soup observed the finds from the beach carefully and wrote a few notes in a journal.

“I just scribbled kelp and seaweed, chiton, sea cucumbers and the estimate we got, which was 200,” O’Soup said.

The students return to the beach after observing the marine life with local crab biologist Kellii Wood. Photo/Angela Denning

Another student, Malcolm Fry, bends down to get a better look at what’s crawling on the beach.

Fry is entering 7th grade this year. He says he enjoys learning outside of the classroom.

“Because it has a lot of interesting facts that you can’t really get from others,” Fry said. “When you look around you can actually find a lot of cool stuff, which is great. It’s just fun.

“Oh, hey, look what we have here,” Bracken said. “We have a gunnel.”

A gunnel is a small eel-shaped fish.

Bracken says he really likes this particular beach for its diversity of sea life.

“It’s so energetic because we have the current flowing both ways,” Bracken said. “Find things here that we don’t find in other areas.”

Just now, something catches our eye in the water.

“There! There! A sea lion! They are jumping,” the students shout.

Students watch a group of sea lions swim together, jumping out of the water as they go.

“My Lord! I have never seen seal lions do this,” said one student.

“They swim a bit like porpoises where they jump out of the water,” Bracken said. “What’s happening is the tide is coming in now and they’re swimming against the current. So they expend energy to get out of the water.

Students will spend the last day of camp in town reviewing everything they have learned throughout the week.

Rice says the camp was such a success that the St. Petersburg Marine Mammal Center plans to do something like it again next year.

Paul N. Strickland