That’s how Dr. Becky Deehr, Hutchison middle school science teacher, described a week-long excursion to the Bahamas with 13 middle school girls in June. Deehr, along with middle school science teacher Donna Budynas and middle school assistant head Hollis Ligon, planned the trip as a unique way for the girls to study marine biology, geology, geography, and a little bit of astronomy.
Although they had a long delay leaving from the airport in Memphis and had to rearrange their schedule a bit, the group finally made it to the tiny Bahamian island of San Salvador. Approximately 1,000 people live on the island, which hosts a research center where many scientists come to study throughout the year. Dr. Deehr had visited San Sal during her Master’s degree work and scouted it again last summer with Budynas for this trip. They knew that it would be a perfect place for the girls to learn.
“There are a wide variety of things to see, including different kinds of reefs and different landscapes. And because it is a small island, we could get around easily,” Deehr said. On top of that, the island has a connection to history: it is widely believed to be the first land of “the new world” that Christopher Columbus discovered in 1492.
This was no beach-lounging trip though. The girls and their chaperones were busy from sun up to sun down. “We went snorkeling every day and most days we would go hiking somewhere,” said Libby Prince ’21.
Before they left for the Bahamas, all girls were required to attend a snorkeling lesson at The Dive Shop last spring so that they would be prepared when they got to the island. The first day in the ocean was devoted to practicing those snorkeling skills and working out any issues. They started on beaches with grassy underwater areas where they spotted sea turtles, and each day worked their way up to better and better reefs where they saw different kinds of coral and fish, including stingrays and barracudas. They even got a surprise visit from a friendly dolphin one day that swam around and did some tricks.
Camille Mattingly ’22 had been snorkeling before in places like Aruba and the Cayman Islands, but she couldn’t believe what she saw in San Salvador. “This was by far the most beautiful water I’ve snorkeled in, probably because it’s not very commercial and not very polluted,” she said. “I had never seen a reef as healthy as some of the ones I saw in San Sal.”
When they weren’t in the water, they were doing research on land. One day they conducted a transect on the beach, which is a series of quadrats where one observes and records the different species they see in the quadrat, including plants, sand, and crabs. “It was a way for girls to practice honing in and seeing the details that are around us all the time,” Ligon said. “That’s a really important skill for young scientists to develop.”
Deehr said they also considered the abiotic factors of the different beaches. Was it windy there? Were the waves really rough compared to others? What did the shoreline look like, how did the sand feel? They talked about temperature and how water and sand and air temperatures are different and change at different times of the day.
On Sunday, after attending a local church, the girls picked up trash on a beach and analyzed it scientifically. It wasn’t a hard day, but giving back a little to the island on a Sunday felt right organically.
Because it was hot and sunny during the day, the girls were pretty exhausted by day’s end, but they still got together to recap. “At night we would go to the lab and talk about what we learned that day and write some thoughts on what we did,” Prince said. “We talked about the fish we saw and had field guides to help us identify the different types of fish.”
Budynas said it was an opportunity for the girls to observe and report. “We weren’t just telling them that a fish was a blue tang, for instance. They were drawing what they had seen on dives slates and then looking them up in field guides. Anytime you research something yourself, you remember it a lot longer. They discovered they can find it by themselves. It’s a good evolution toward knowledge and understanding.”
Because each girl had a snorkel buddy, they collected and analyzed their data together as teammates. They worked with different classmates so that they weren’t always working with the same people. It was valuable practice in cooperating and coordinating activities with one another.
One night they ventured out to do some astronomy. “I’ve never seen that many stars in one area at a time,” said Katie Davis ’21. “Everywhere you looked there were stars. You could actually see the constellations. I saw two shooting stars that night.”
Beyond documenting their daily research, the girls documented their experiences on the trip too. Each night, snorkel buddies would post photos and write a blog about their adventures for their parents to follow back home. Rachel Perry ’22, inspired by an idea from her classmate Lily Rodenhiser ’22, interviewed the girls with a video camera for a daily video log or vlog. She said the results were “funny and surprising at the same time.” Several things they all agreed on: it was hot and they probably needed more sunscreen and bug spray. Perry edited and posted the videos before she went to bed.
A bit of serendipity was that while the girls were staying at the research center, there was a scientific conference going on. A number of scientists had poster boards up describing their work. “It was cool to see all the different things they were studying on the island,” said Davis. “The posters were like the science fair posters we’ve done but more advanced.”
Budynas agreed. “Even when they didn’t understand the science, they understood the process and they could see that the scientists had collected data and created graphs to prove whatever it was they were trying to prove.”
A couple of scientists stopped to talk with the girls about their work. Deehr said those were some of her favorite moments, when girls had exposure to working scientists and could hear that they don’t always get the results they are expecting. It was a concrete way for them to see that it’s all part of the scientific process. Ligon added: “We wanted this trip to engage and inspire the girls to be interested in their environment and in science. I expect they will remember this trip for the rest of their lives, and it may even impact what they choose to study in the future.”
Katie Davis said the trip opened up new possibilities for her. “I have liked marine biology for a while now,” she said, “but this trip helped me realize this is something that I’m probably going to want to pursue later in life. There’s so much of the ocean that we haven’t explored yet and that we don’t know about. I think that’s intriguing.”
“I think the immersion, literally and figuratively, was invaluable,” Deehr said. “They had a chance to feel what it’s like to be a field scientist themselves.”