Students experience science on board ship

November 29 2007

Darin Lang slackened the rope that played through his hands as he helped to lower a piece of water-collecting scientific equipment over a ship’s edge into the Pacific Ocean.

“You know, I’ve looked at stuff like this all my life and seen it on TV,” the Indiana State University freshman said. “Then actually coming out here and experiencing it and seeing it in person, it’s hard to describe how cool it was.”

The trip to San Diego, filled with firsts for the Terre Haute resident, included conducting scientific experiments and working with world-renowned scientists, both of which brought the direction for his life into sharper focus. After finishing the 24-hour research cruise, Lang said he learned more than he expected.

“I expected it to be a lot of fun and I got out here and it’s just increased my passion for oceanography tenfold,” he said.

That was just part of the reason Tony Rathburn, ISU associate professor of geology, took students on the cruise. He also wanted them to learn oceanographic procedures with hands-on experience using the equipment.

“In addition to the cruise, I also wanted to give students the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be on the ocean, what it’s like to be a student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, what it’s like to be a research scientist in this kind of environment,” he said.

For the three ISU students who spent 24 hours aboard the floating classroom, it accomplished just that.

“The experience is invaluable,” said Jason Waggoner, a graduate student from Hutsonville, Ill. “In the classroom and even in the books you don’t get a good idea or grasp of what’s going on at sea or aboard a ship.”

The trip also proved to be a broadening one.

“The things that you learn in the classrooms will give you some type of understanding of what’s going on in the world around you. But to actually come out here, see it firsthand you don’t really realize the impact that man has had on the earth until you actually come out here and see it for yourself,” said sophomore Ron Taylor from West Terre Haute. “It put it in a much broader perspective.”

The trip to San Diego put Lang onto an airplane for the first time and gave him his first feel of the cold Pacific Ocean water. It also put him onto a boat and allowed him to contribute to scientific research along with students from the University of San Diego.

“I had never even been on a ship for any amount of time on the ocean, and that was a lot different, trying to get used to the waves, how the ship rocks and trying not to get sick,” said the Terre Haute native.

While students from the University of San Diego spent eight hours at sea, the trio from ISU spent the entire 24 hours aboard the ship, the Robert Gordon Sproul. There they worked by taking samples of water to measure for conductivity, temperature and depth of ocean water. They also snared plankton using a plankton tow from the ship, and used a multi-corer to obtain samples from the ocean floor. The foraminifera -- single-celled creatures that secrete shell-like skeletons which, when preserved as fossils in the core samples -- can tell the history of the area.

“The work involved in the cruise is something I hadn’t previously seen, using certain pieces of equipment,” said Waggoner, who went on several research cruises this year. “It’s nice to be able to learn some new techniques and see how others process the samples that came aboard.”

Taylor said inside of an ISU lab, they work to identify species, but at sea, they learn how to gather those samples.

“It pretty much puts into perspective what you do inside of a laboratory,” he said.

It is the difference between classroom lectures and actual experience that makes such opportunities vital for students, according to Rathburn.

“You just have to be there,” he said. “You just have to have those kind of hands-on experiences -- to be able to feel the metal of the equipment, to be up in the wee hours of the morning working on a piece of equipment to send it over the side and then collecting the samples when it comes back. There’s just no substitute for experiential learning when it comes to oceanographic research.”

Or for creating an excitement within the students ��" such as Lang, who had considered studying engineering.

“This has helped me a lot because it definitely just made it no longer a decision about what I wanted to do,” he said. “This is really what I’m into and I really like doing this and every other thing that I thought about doing is totally out of the option now. It’s out of consideration.”

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Contact: Tony Rathburn, associate professor at Indiana State University, at 812-237-2269 or at arathburn@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jsicking@isugw.indstate.edu

Photo: http://ISUphoto.smugmug.com/photos/219371452-D.jpg

Cutline: Darin Lange, left, freshman at Indiana State University, helps Tony Rathburn, right, associate professor, sort equipment aboard the Robert Gordon Sproul on the Pacific Ocean near San Diego, Calif.

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Story Highlights

A trip to San Diego for Indiana State University students included conducting scientific experiments and working with world-renowned scientists aboard the Robert Gordon Sproul.

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