Allison Irwin: Working in the Acoustics Lab, July 11, 2019


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

July 7-25, 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 11, 2019

Weather at 1100 Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday 10 July 2019

The winds picked up. Dreary is a good way to describe the sky – an overcast layer on top with smoky-gray smudges of smaller clouds just a little lower. According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, I can describe the sea as moderately choppy with 4’ – 8’ waves, white caps scattered throughout, and some spray.  But on the scale that only accounts for 17-21 knots of wind.  The instruments on the ship track the wind in real time, and it’s showing anywhere from 20 – 30 knots. Today I need a couple of light layers under a warm, cozy jacket to keep me feeling comfortable. And a hat to keep my hair in place while the wind blows all around us.

PERSONAL LOG


I didn’t want to get my hopes up in regard to food on the ship. Between the constant rocking, less than ideal conditions for fruits and vegetables, and confined space, I didn’t have high expectations. But once I got to NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker, the regulars on the ship thankfully put my worries at ease. They told me we have one of the best chefs on the NOAA fleet of ships.

Fresh Cherries
Fresh Cherries

Our Chief Steward, Kathy, is in charge of the kitchen. She makes her job look effortless, though I’m sure it’s not. She puts out an eclectic menu each day that would rival any popular restaurant. Since I’m a Food Network junky, I really think she belongs on Chopped. She’d blow her competitors out of the water! She seasons everything perfectly.

She always has snacks available like fresh baked macadamia nut cookies or homemade rice crispy treats. So far she’s served Peruvian chicken, kalbi ribs, chicken pad thai, open-faced meatloaf sandwiches, West African peanut soup, and chicken marsala. Oh, and pancakes, and omelets, and cheeseburgers, and Cuban sandwiches, and black bean soup, and… the list goes on. She always offers fresh fruit or a fresh salad bar. It’s clear she’s had a lot of experience working with the constraints this unique environment must put on her. I’m lucky to be on a ship with someone who so clearly loves to cook! The foodie in me is very happy.

Pork Chop
Mustard Glazed Pork Chop, Veggies & Rice, Side Salad


THE SCIENCE


The acoustics lab is something to behold. If you took a classroom and cut it in half lengthwise, it would be that large. Since we’re on a ship where space is limited, I get the sense that this equipment is important. And after working a shift in the room, I know why. The data collected in this room provides the backbone for the whole survey.

Acoustics Lab
Chief Scientist Kevin Stierhoff in the Acoustics Lab

NOAA scientists use sonar to identify various types of fish in the water below us – and to the sides – as we travel along. Individual echoes from discreet targets – noise, small plankton, large fishes – show up on one screen as raw data. Through post processing, the system removes most of the unwanted echoes so that all we’re left with are echoes from the fishes of interest on a separate screen.

The Coastal Pelagic Species show up as a seemingly indistinguishable, colorful blob of dots on the screen, but our chief scientist Kevin Stierhoff interprets each blob with a fair amount of accuracy. He explained what looked like hocus pocus to me originally is really just simple logic. For example, pelagic species tend to stay relatively close to the surface. So if I see a blob of red and yellow that’s, let’s say, more than 100 meters below the surface, then I’m probably looking at a type of fish that prefers deeper waters near the rocky seabed. Those deeper blobs could indicate a species of Rockfish (of which there are plenty), but probably not one of the pelagic species we’re searching for.

Ever try searching for a needle in a haystack? Get frustrated and walk away? Yeah. NOAA is more strategic than that. Acoustic sampling is conducted during the day when the Coastal Pelagic Species are deeper in the water and schooled together. This makes them easier to see using the sonar equipment on board. Later we’ll return at night to noted areas of high activity to trawl for the anchovies, sardines, herring, mackerel, and squid while they’re closer to the surface feeding.  Plus, they can’t see the net at night and therefore won’t be able to avoid it like they would if we attempted to trawl for fish during the day.

Acoustic sampling allows us to efficiently survey a much larger area than we could without it. Its primary purpose is to more precisely determine the biomass of the pelagic fish community over a large area. NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center started using this style of acoustic data collection to enhance its fisheries mission about 15 years ago, but this is only the second year they’ve deployed saildrones – wind and solar powered unmanned surface vehicles – to extend the survey area both in shore where it’s more shallow and far off shore where Reuben Lasker will not have time to travel during this survey. The saildrones allow scientists to capture more acoustic data from a wider survey area.


TEACHING CONNECTIONS


One of the coolest things about education is that we can connect students not just to their local community, but to their global community. For the last three years, the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has written a blog to help classrooms and individuals follow the adventures of their latest saildrone missions. They’re intending to write another series of blog entries to track a mission in 2019 and 2020, but you could easily use one of the previous year’s text in the classroom if you can’t wait for the new entries to be posted. Read a few of these entries with your students and use them as a springboard to teach about cutting edge technology, stewardship, environmental science, storytelling, culture, math, or navigation.

Thankfully, almost any topic can be used to build literacy skills. When texts like this inspire me to connect my students to local and global community leaders in a particular field of interest, I usually reach out to the authors directly. Some teachers will find it more challenging to make these connections to their classrooms, but it is worth the effort. If I can find an email address or contact information for the person who wrote an article I enjoy, typically they can lead me to someone who is a dynamic speaker and willing to come into my classroom. Or sometimes they will offer to come out themselves if they live nearby. Then I find companion texts to read with my students before and after the person comes in to present.

The possibilities are almost too voluminous to count. In one direction, you could bring in a local scientist or graduate student doing interesting research to speak on some topic as it relates to your classroom content. You should also consider arranging a field site visit to a unique local gem if the funding is available. Usually local field trips are much less expensive. Our local communities are filled to the brim with places that relate to our class content. It takes a little leg work to find them sometimes, but if you choose the right place you’ll see a return on your investment for the full school year.

Last year I was lucky enough to coordinate a visit to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia which is one of the leading working dog training facilities in the nation. It’s housed in a tiny little building off some obscure road in Philadelphia. I never would have found it if I weren’t out there directly searching for something like it. Most places like this can be found and initially filtered online with a little bit of strategic searching. Something as small as a one-day site visit or facility tour, if it’s the right location, can motivate students to push themselves academically a little bit further than they thought they could go on their own.

This one visit ended up being the springboard for my students to read authentic nonfiction texts (like media release forms and liability release forms), to think critically and make decisions, to write a press release, to build background knowledge, to enhance their vocabulary, and to learn the value of reading not for the sake of a grade but because interpreting the texts and being able to share information with others (like younger students they ended up mentoring or like our district’s administrative team who were interested in their project) was vital to the success of their project. Most important, it provided a means of intrinsic motivation for my students – that elusive creature that often comes so close to my grasp but then flutters away again when I use less engaging methods of classroom instruction.

If you want to go in more of a global direction, you could ask a facility farther away in another state or country if they have the capacity to involve your students in an integrated learning experience via Skype or old school pen-pal style communication throughout the year. Students can participate in or monitor on-going research around the world all while learning about unfamiliar cultures and locations.  And of course, bring your own diverse experiences and travel into the classroom! Apply for the NOAA Teacher at Sea program to get out of your own comfort zone and be a positive means of bridging your classroom to the global community.

Teaching Resources

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