The garage door is up and the cacophonous whine of building equipment is in full throttle. Students, supplies and tools spill out of the classroom and onto the patio. Some are using circular saws to cut plywood, others are grinding away spurs with corded grinders, and a few are even welding, making aquarium racks out of wrought steel. It’s just another day in Chris Morissette’s Environmental Engineering class.
I’ve been teaching at High Tech High North County for only a few weeks now and I’m already gaining an appreciation for the project-based ethos. The students come in to class excited, and many use their free time for extra work or to get trained on new equipment. Each is shown the right way to use the tools and handed the accompanying outfit of safety equipment, then they go to work under close supervision.
The racks they’re fashioning will hold a single ten-gallon aquarium tank. Groups of four will have their own tank, a mini-ecosystem, which they will maintain throughout the year. All in all we will have fifteen aquaria, thanks to funding from SDG&E and the San Diego Foundation, and each will hold live coral from the Pacific and the Caribbean. Our overarching scientific goal is for the students to investigate how human activities—pollution runoff, warming of the oceans, and others—influence coral health. But there is much more to be gained from this project.
My classroom lesson topics thus far have ranged from the biology of corals to the tools of professional aquarists. Just last week we took our sixty students on a field trip to Birch Aquarium. While there I was able to give small tours behind-the-scenes, but it wasn’t to show off the animals. Instead, the students observed the complexity of engineering that goes into keeping the myriad marine systems functioning.
The students learned first-hand about protein skimmers, sumps, calcium reactors, filter socks, chillers, and algae refugia, all tools they will put to use in aquaria at the school. The field trip highlighted the line this project is straddling: science and engineering. The scientific questions are important, but they won’t be answered unless the engineering and maintenance of the systems is impeccable.
One of the only topics agreed upon during the first presidential debate was that America needs to bolster training in hands-on skills in order to put citizens back to work. When this came up I couldn’t help but think of the students in Chris’ class and our underlying motivation for the coral project: establish something for which a wide range of skills—academic and functional—are required, then allow students to pursue the skills with which they most align. And by providing the leeway for exploration, we hope to not just grow the students’ skill sets, but also help them find their passion.
Note: This will be the last Science Minded post on UT-San Diego. I would like to offer a sincere thanks to my editor, Mike Lee, for the great opportunity to blog on the Science and Environment page and wish him all the best in his next endeavor. Science Minded will continue, though, and can be found at http://www.scienceminded.net. Thanks for reading.