EnvirOcean weeks in the School

Alex Tannehill’s middle school science class is a busy place- some students bounce up and down at their desk, talking excitedly over each other, as others run to grab their nearly forgotten science journal. Others visit friends at distant desks, a tactic I predict is used to avoid sitting at their own as much as it is to entertain their peers. Only the respect the students have for Mrs. Tannehill can tether their seemingly boundless energy and direct their attention to the day’s activities (with the help of Renee Gray’s booming voice, of course).

Mrs. Tannehill’s 6th-7th grade elective science class hard at work!

I was fortunate to experience this routine for the whole two week elective period in February. My purpose? To introduce more coastal and climate science, discuss human and nature interactions, and build connections with the students. We called it our environmental and ocean weeks, or “EnvirOcean” for fun. Featuring guest speakers such as PhD researcher Elizabeth Figus and the entire HIA Environmental office, we went over various important science topics with the students. I had a blast watching the next generation of Hoonah stewards get more interested in coastal and environmental science as our EnvirOcean weeks progressed! Here’s a little bit about some of our major activities:

Properties of Water 

penny- cohesion, adhesion, capillary action closer up
Cohesion, adhesion, and capillary action are at play and make the water bubble up on the penny.

Do you know what causes water droplets to form? Or why water sticks to our windshields? If not, a 6th or 7th grader in Mrs. Tannehill’s class can tell you! Cohesion, or the ability of water molecules to “stick” to itself, is what causes water droplets to form. Similarly, adhesion allows water molecules to “stick” to other surfaces. You can see both cohesion and adhesion at play in one activity we did in the Water Property Olympics. Students used a pipet to drop water onto a penny until it spilled over, testing water’s ability to stick to itself and the penny (as well as capillary action- what causes water to move up!). Some students got up to a hundred drops of water on a penny! The properties of water help explain why it behaves the way it does.


Socio-Ecological Systems 

Observing what threats their salmon redd will face first.

I developed a lesson and game on Socio-Ecological Systems (SESs)- a fancy name for the connections between and within social and environmental systems. Everyone is a part of these systems, and we can see their various characteristics in many ways. A legacy effect (or time lag) is just one example of a characteristic on SESs. We may not witness the effects of our actions immediately, but instead over a prolonged period of time. For example, chloroflouro-carbons (CFCs) were used throughout the 1970s, but we didn’t see them depleting the ozone layer (a “sunscreen” layer in the stratosphere that protects earth from UV rays) until the late 1980s-2000s. The effects of using CFCs weren’t visible for another 20
                                                                                  years (as were our efforts to reverse it)!

Fingers crossed for as little salmon deaths as possible!

I illustrated how humans contribute to this complex web using the Salmon game, where students were given a population of salmon eggs that they hoped to keep alive until they returned to their natal stream to spawn. The students rolled the dice to see what threats, either social or environmental, their salmon would face! We identified what characteristics of SESs occurred throughout the salmon’s lives that contributed to their inescapable death, and the students were shocked to see how many threats salmon really face.




Phytoplankton 1
Ian Johnson and Jeromy Grant teach the class how to identify various phytoplankton species under the microscope.

Ian Johnson, Jeromy Grant and Sam Sheakley came to class to discuss one of the most important creatures in the ocean- phytoplankton! Phytoplankton are microscopic, plant-like critters that photosynthesize (they make oxygen and sugars out of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide) as they float around in the water. They test shellfish for dangerous levels of phytoplankton because some types are toxic. Shellfish like clams, cockles, and blue mussels consume those toxic plankton while they filter feed, and we consume them too if we eat shellfish during the wrong time of the year. This can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP. More sunlight in the summer causes more phytoplankton to bloom, increasing the amount of toxic phytoplankton in the water and in shellfish. You can read more about Ian and Jeromy’s work monitoring PSP and phytoplankton here.


Diving into Coastal Science

basket star
A basket star- one of the cooler things we’ve seen in Hoonah’s waters!

Sean Williams and I dove into the coastal program and our scientific dive work with the class! We explained how we’re trying to classify habitats and identify coastal resources vulnerable to, and bioindicators of, climate change. Then we will have a better understanding of how the coastal resources we value are going to change as oceans acidify, water temperatures increase, and sea levels rise due to isostatic rebound (the crust underneath glaciers “rebound” as weight from ice is removed). Afterwards, I suited up for them and we looked at some cool stuff we regularly see underwater. Our goal was to not only describe what we’re studying but to inspire them to pursue their dream careers, even if it might take a lot to get there.

dive day
Making a circle with your pointer finger and thumb is a dive signal that means “okay”!


Halibut fishing in Hoonah

Dr. Elizabeth Figus introduces herself and her work to the class.

Guest speaker and UAF graduate Elizabeth Figus came into the classroom to introduce her PhD research on halibut fishing and bycatch in Hoonah and several other communities around SE Alaska. She conducted interviews with halibut fishermen to determine their preference of data collection methods on their fishing vessels in order to better incorporate their opinions in fisheries management decisions. She shared what she learned with the students, and even handed out cool SWAG (stuff we all get). You can read more about her work here.


elizabeth figus halibut poster
You can learn about Dr. Figus’ findings on posters in the school!


Sean Williams and I introduce thermal expansion to the students.

Thermal Expansion

We used a lab to answer the question “how does heat energy affect water?” with the class. Yes, water boils if heated enough, but what happens to each water molecule before then? As we saw, the water level in the two liter bottle rose significantly as it gained heat over time. As each molecule gains more heat energy they move faster and faster, increasing the space between each other. This is known as- you guessed it- thermal expansion! The students went from station to station to examine various aspects of the lesson including clay molecule building, heat transfers, and a matter vs. non-matter sort. Thermal expansion helps us understand why oceans and clouds move the way they do.

Matter is anything that has mass and takes up space- so is sound matter?
Students built various molecules with clay to get a better understanding of how atoms come together.









Ecosystem Services

Toward the end of our two week mini-unit I got to share another lesson and game with the students, this time on ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are nature’s benefits that humans use for free. There are four different types of services:

Yarn strings connected us to others to reflect how we depend on each other!
  • Provisionary (or “goods”): the tangible products directly used by humans. Examples include food, oxygen, clean water, fuel and minerals. They are essential inputs to all economic production.
  • Regulatory: ecological processes that occur naturally, which provide benefits to us. Pollination, water flow regulation, water and air purification, and waste recycling are all examples of regulatory services. The quantity and quality of our goods heavily depend on these services.
  • Cultural: ideas and experiences we receive from nature. This includes cultural heritage, recreation and tourism, spirituality, sense of place, mental and physical health, and even education. Everyone’s culture has been influenced by the natural environment in some way.
  • Supporting: processes that indirectly support humans by making the other services possible. Nutrient cycling, water cycling, biodiversity, habitat, and photosynthesis are all indirect supporting services we rely on. Without these no other services or goods could be provided.

Our economy and well-being depend entirely on the services of ecosystems. We played an ecosystem connection game to represent the connections between various creatures around Hoonah and how we all depend on each other. The class did a great job learning this advanced material, and got to have fun in the process!

Other cool topics 

We crammed a bunch of great material into the two week window we had! Most of what we learned couldn’t have been done without some foundational knowledge of the water cycle. Mrs. Tannehill also prepared an oil cleanup lab, where the students had limited materials and time to clean up their mini-environment to the best of their ability after a (vegetable) oil spill! This was to highlight how difficult it is to clean up aquatic environments after an oil spill accident and to express the importance of teamwork, innovation, and dedication to overcome such a messy problem. Another great lesson was our repurposing activity, where each team of students was given four “garbage” items that they had to repurpose for another use. Repurposing items not only saves the environment and energy, but money too! Why buy something you could make out of an already owned item? One great idea was to make a magnetic fridge planter out of individual egg holders from an egg carton. Crafty and conservative! Our two week class time together was spent in a lot of amazing ways.

How would you repurpose an egg carton, old cord, and a coffee bin?
The students were given a short amount of time and only a few supplies to clean their environment!












We witnessed the water level rise (or expand) as it absorbed more heat.


Middle school students can sometimes be a handful, but working with them is as rewarding as they are energetic. This class was full of excitement and an eagerness to learn, and I especially valued their inquisitive nature. I see education as one of the most important fields to work in because sharing information and knowledge is critical in growing as a person and as a society, and I am extremely grateful I was given the opportunity to help educate these students on relevant science topics. I hope to continue bridging HIA Environmental with the school in order to build capacity within the student body to help them reach their fullest potential.






From all of us at HIA Environmental: Thank you Mrs. Tannehill and Mrs. Gray for allowing our participation in your science class! We had a great time, and look forward to working with you more in the future.

Witnessing cohesion in a cup.
Mrs. Tannehill realizing how much she depends on her students!













Written by Arianna Lapke
AmeriCorps VISTA


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