Plankton-Students Discover the Collectively Mightiest of Organisms

Latest update July 12, 2019 Started on October 1, 2018

Middle school students enter the world of application sciences by working with UMCES Horn Point Laboratory, NOAA: Oxford Md. Lab, CES at Washington College, and other community education outreach programs to explore the world of plankton.

October 1, 2018
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In The Field

On June 21st, families of students met at San Domingo Creek to give them the chance to use the ROV donated by SoFar, National Geographic, and the S.E.E. Grant. Here are a few images of some of the other things they did at our main parent event. We had a plankton net, microscopes, and kayaks ready to go on a perfect day sandwiched between stormy weather events.

Unfortunately the main event was a small turnout, but I have met with other families since then. If any other families of students who have not had the chance to drive the ROV would like to meet some time this summer, just let me know. I'm available most of the summer.

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After talking with the students about the IWL, and the slide show I presented at my speaking event, I surprised the students with the ROV from the S.E.E. Initiative. Needless to say, they were impressed. They can't wait for the field trip to San Domingo Park to give it a whirl.

Thanks again to National Geographic Open Explorer, the S.E.E. Initiative, Sofar/OpenROV, and all of our followers.

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In The Field

Yesterday, I was invited by the Mid-Shore Chapter of the Isaac Walton League in Trappe, Md. If you have never heard of the IWL, it is one of the old organizational voices for conservation in the nation. Every month, the Mid-Shore Chapter invites a speaker to their monthly member dinners who has something to do with conservation, environmental sciences, or just anything in general. I was asked to speak on behalf of the program we have set up, and you have been following. They were a wonderful group of individuals who had very kind things to say about what the students had learned. They were very impressed with the images of the students, the videos they had created, and the field experience they enjoyed.

Thanks for listening Isaac Walton League!


I received the Trident ROV yesterday. Being one that can't wait to try something new, my son, who is also one of my students this semester, and I gave it a whirl in our small pool. Our hope is to give the Trident its first official dive this weekend. Then, in two weeks, the hope is the students in my class will have the chance to drive the Trident on a field trip to San Domingo Creek.

Thanks again to Sofar, the S.E.E. Initiative, Nat Geo, and all who have followed us through this experience. From what I can tell from our annual survey, the students have really enjoyed discovering the mightiest of organisms in a different way.


Yesterday I received the UMCES Horn Point Lab May Newsletter through my e-mail inbox. After scrolling down, it was great to see our trip made it into the Newsletter! To see the newsletter (soon), check out the link:

As we enter the last 3 weeks of school, all things plankton will be slowing down a bit. Now the students will be researching climate change, try to convince me that it is impacted by human actions, and sue my fictitious company for its role in climate change and environmental impacts. I'll post some of what we do.

There hopefully will be one more plankton related post though. We are hoping to invite parents & guardians to one last field trip in which the students will show them what they learned, and give the Sofar Trident ROV a whirl in San Domingo Creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.


Great News! For those of you who have not heard, we are now supported by the Science Exploration Education (S.E.E.) Initiative. It is a program in which a tech company who engineers solutions for water based science called Sofar (formerly OpenROV) supports citizen scientists and explorers through the Open Explorer program by supplying them with a Trident ROV. For more information about all of this, check out the website and video below:

More to come when we have received the ROV!!

Last, a big THANK YOU for the support of our followers and the S.E.E. Initiative as the students learn about the tiniest, yet collectively mightiest, of organisms on the planet.

In The Field

As an idea of where the plankton images are coming from, below are the "Blooms in a Bucket" and a video. In the video you will see small dots moving around in the water. That is zooplankton, most of which are copepods of some sort.


Day 2 images from 3B students photomicroscopy lesson: 2 Acartia tonsa and 2 harpacticoid, both are types of copepods (complete with 0.5 mm scale). There is video of the harpacticoid as well.

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Day 2 images from 3A students photomicroscopy lesson: 3 Acartia tonsa and 1 harpacticoid, both are types of copepods (complete with 0.5 mm scale). There is video of the harpacticoid as well.

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Today the students got a taste of art and science. First they used the book "Plankton: Wonders of the Drifting World" by Christian Sardet ( to draw plankton much like a researcher would as he/she learns about their subject. They also got a taste of photomicroscopy using two microscopes with camera mounts. Below are some of the pictures. There will be more to come as the week goes on. I will also post some of the drawings when they finish.

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The Monday (yesterday) after the field experience at Horn Point Lab, I got a few good stories: one from a parent, and one from a student.

First, a parent took the time to send an e-mail saying her student doesn't talk much about school, but the evening after the experience, he apparently had a few things to say. To sum it up, he felt he had learned a lot, and thought it was great that the people leading the trip were professionals in the field of oceanographic engineering, the Chesapeake, and plankton. That comment is a true testament to the people who put on the field experience.

Second, a student came to me at the beginning of class yesterday and told me a story about her using the Foldscope I gave the students after the trip. (Each student was given an "origami" microscope called a Foldscope: Over the weekend, a young lady in my class told me a about how she built her own plankton catcher at home, walked down to the water near her house, caught some plankton, and used the fold scope to see what was living in the water. She said she saw some really neat stuff. I told her it was great to hear she was so excited about everything, and that she took the initiative to go it alone.

Lastly, I have to give another shout out and thank you to Jamie, Bart, Doug, and Jemima. You guys know how to put on a memorable experience for the students.

In The Field

Today was the day. The students went into the field, built PVC ROVs, caught plankton, and looked at them under microscopes. Their knowledge was put to the test by the professionals, and they passed with flying colors. Jamie Pierson(HPL), Bart Merrick (NOAA), and Doug Levin and Jemima Clark (CES) each pulled me aside individually and commented on how awesome the students did answering questions. They couldn't believe how much they had learned, and how well they could connect it to the Chesapeake Bay. Congratulations to all the students, and a HUGE THANK-YOU to Horn Point, NOAA, and CES at Washington College for an awesome experience that the kids will remember for a long time.


Below is a small slide show movie from today.


Putting the finishing touches on the preparations for todays trip. Yesterday afternoon I sent the following e-mail to parents:


All field trip preparations are being finalized as I write this email. Horn Point is filling two large blue tanks with water for the students to test their ROVs before the drive them in the Choptank with the goal of collecting plankton. A NOAA representative is bringing an impressive camera and microscope set up for the kids to see their catch. HPL will supply a bunch of scopes and water quality measurement tools as well. CES at Washington College is loading their former "ambulance" turned engineering truck with supplies for the ROVs. Trust me when I say the professionals are just as excited about this as the students seem to be. They love doing this, and they put the kids to the test. This won't be a "show and tell" trip. The students get put to work, and their knowledge will be tested. Wish them luck!

Please remember to help them prepare for the weather, and to bring a lunch. I have discussed the predicted conditions with them every day this week. The current weather prediction as of this e-mail, according to Weather Underground, is:

Scattered thunderstorms in the morning, then cloudy skies late. High 78F. Winds S at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 40%. (Thunderstorms possible between 9 & 11 am. We will be under cover at that time, so if the storms come, we are good.)

Tomorrow is the field experience, and below are the students ROV designs.

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Yesterday and today the students began building their ROVs with the purpose of catching plankton from the Choptank River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Below are some images of the groups engineering prowess. More to come over the next few days as we finish up the designs.

6th Graders being kids at heart, I also showed them an award video from Nickelodeon and the BBC featuring Spongbob giving an award to the most important creatures on Earth. I linked it below.

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Here are a few more infographics, and a Youtube video link for the Sharkcam.

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In preparation for the field trip/field experience on Friday, the students needed to understand ROVs/AUVs. This field experience will require them to build and drive PVC ROVs on loan from the Center for Environment & Society at Washington College ( and NOAA: Oxford, Maryland Lab. Below are some infographics made by some of the students. All are based on ROVs & AUVs from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts ( The Remus Sharkcam was the favorite this time around.

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The students have finished their projects and are ready to share what they have learned. The next few posts will have 3 student projects: a news report, a Youtuber approach, and a poster. All were made over the course of 5 school days and with a really low budget, but they do show they understand what is happening the stellar sea lions of Alaska . . .


As the students prepare for their field trip to HPL, they are finishing up projects that show what they learned about the decline of stellar sea lions in Alaska. Below are some images of the students hard at work. The projects range from iMovies to posters. The final projects are soon to come!

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Now the students are preparing for their field trip to Horn Point. While working on final projects involving the Environmental Mystery (more to come soon), they have been reading up on plankton. The first day was a a straight forward description of Plankton. They had to answer he question, what are plankton? Below are a couple answers they came up with. Just keep in mind that the online resource we use to enter answers does not make formatting easy.

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Today the Environmental Mystery Unit ended. The students came away with a well thought out concept model of the events that made up the mystery. I'm going to be light on information on what they learned, because, if all goes well, the students will complete projects that can be shared in a future post. In other words, I'm going to let them do all the talking soon.

As part of the unit, the students were to experience some frustration. I asked how many were frustrated, or maybe down right angry, with me. It was all of them. I reminded them that I had warned them in the beginning they would feel that way at some point this semester. We discussed how they went through the rollercoaster ride many scientist go through. They had the experience of researching "hypothesis", deciding if it was true or not, and then justifying their stance from the research. Some times they were wrong, or off a little. Other times they were spot on. In the end they found themselves having gone through a "review" of their research. This proved to be a new experience for them.

We also talked about the difference between the questions the students are used to answering and the questions I threw at them. We talked about the pollution scenario in particular. By the end of our talk, they understood what was happening. For the most part, they seemed excited to have gotten a taste of what it was like to be a researcher.

Now the students need to prepare for the field trip to Horn Point Lab in Cambridge, Maryland. They will need to know "all things plankton", as they will be working side by side with scientists and engineers who work with plankton, copepods in particular, day in and day out. We started by going through the question formation technique (QFT) that I spoke of in earlier posts. It allowed the students to develop open ended questions of their own that they should be able to answer as they get to know "all things plankton".

In The Field

Today the students researched a hypothesis in which pollution was the reason for the decline of herring populations. They discovered that there was a major short term impact from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the herring have found a way to recover from it. Unfortunately the herring population has stayed low. Tomorrow is should bring an end to the game as they look into the loss of the herring diet: plankton!

The rest of this week will be Spring Break for the students. When they return next week, the will become "experts" on plankton and finish with a field trip that is always a big hit.

Another Update:

Through interpretation of historical data, the students built graphs that show herring populations, stellar sea lion populations, and fishing industry catch amounts of herring. When they compared their findings, it was discovered that the fishing industry is not overfishing. Therefore, the fishing industry is not the cause of the decline in populations. Something else is making the sea lion and herring populations drop.

Students also took water quality measurements again today. It was found the dissolved oxygen levels are on the rise. They decided this made sense because of the increase in algal growth.

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Update from the Environmental Mystery:

Students at Saint Michael's Middle/High have been playing the game for a few days now. They have investigated a few possible student driven reasons why the stellar sea lions are in decline. In other words, they asked some questions and came up with a few hypothesis'. Where did it leave them . . . ?

. . . Stumped, well, most of them, but that is science. After investigating a few hypothesis' that proved not to be the reason for the decline, the students finally saw a connection in the game. When the sea lion population rises, so do the "yellow" markers. When the sea lion population declines, so do the "yellow" markers. That left them asking what are the "yellow" markers, and why does their population act as it does? They decided to look into the sea lion diet.

After building graphs and reading some information, the students discovered a major food source, herring, are in decline as well, and the decline of both happened at the same time historically. (I'll let them explain the reason when the posts are open to them.)

Now they are left with another pressing question. Why are the herring in decline? Tonight the students put their first "hypothesis" to the test. They want to know if overfishing by humans is the cause.

Today game play began. The drama of what has happened to the steller sea lion (SSL) over the last 30+ years unfolded as the students played a roll playing game designed to mimic the causes of the SSL population decline. One groups theory was, "Could climate change have a direct impact on the sea lion population?" For homework, they will use a data table compiled from years of data collection and research to create a chart/graph. Then they have to combine what they have learned about SSL and the newly graphed information to decide if it is the cause of the decline.

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Today students practiced taking water quality data from an experiment they designed. They are collecting data to see how an additive effects four 1 gallon samples taken from sights listed in an earlier post. Below is a time-lapse video of the students at work.

In order to drive their own learning, I have employed a teaching strategy that should give the students further buy in to the "Bloom in a Bucket". To peak their interest, I opted to get out of their way, and not ask them any questions. Instead, I let them ask the questions. Using a strategy called the Question Formation Technique (QTF), by a group called the Right Question Initiative (,), I guided the students to develop their own questions in groups. It worked great! I gave them nothing except 4 buckets of water and a guiding statement about where the water came from. All six groups across two classes managed to develop open ended questions that nearly matched what I would have asked (All of their questions were better than I would have tasted at them as well). They all wanted to know if the water could support life, and what would be needed to do so? As homework, I asked the students to research the different areas of water quality that could effect their questions.

Tomorrow students will be involved in designing their own experiment involving the water samples, the donated nutrients, and a way to measure and track changes in pH, D.O., temperature, and salinity.

Below are images of our mini-lab, and the students working on their questions.

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Tomorrow, April 1st marks the day students begin solving the Environmental Mystery. This semester, I am approaching things differently. Usually students learn about the importance of water quality after completing the mystery. This semester, I have decided to do it just before, and in conjunction with, the Mystery unit.

The tough part about teaching something like this is I can't get the kids into the field everyday. Transportation costs are enormous, and then there is the fact the students have 5 other classes to get to everyday. To overcome this difficulty I bring the water to them.

Today, I collected 1 gallon samples from 4 different sites in tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. The goal is to slowly create a "Bloom in a Bucket" in the classes by adding nutrients donated by Horn Point Lab. These nutrients feed phytoplankton (algae) in the water. Over time, a bloom forms. As time passes, students will measure temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and salinity. If all goes well, the measurements should change with the help of the "bloom". My plan is to have the kids report on their findings on Open Explorer in a few weeks time.

The trick to all of this is getting the students to buy into all of this. The fact that there are no quick results tend to distract the students. Hopefully tomorrows activities will help with this.

The sample locations are from:

Unionville Rd.- 38 degrees, 47', 36" N 76 degrees, 7', 29"; W

San Domingo Creek- 38 degrees, 46', 50" N 76 degrees, 13', 34" W

Oak Creek Landing- 38 degrees, 45', 12" N 76 degrees, 10', 32" W

Bellevue Landing- 38 degrees, 42', 9" N 76 degrees, 10, 54" W

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This is one last sketch from the classes past. Students get to know ROV's. To learn more, they read an article in "Oceanus" magazine out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. One student summed up a particular ROV in a small infographic.


In one weeks time, the current group of students will be starting the Environmental Mystery Unit. Until then, enjoy a few student sketches from past classes. The sketches are based on images from the book "Plankton: Wonders of the Drifting World" by Christian Sardet. More can be found at the Plankton Chronicles website:

TED Ed also put a video on Youtube that includes/sums up the work done by the Plankton Chronicles.

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As further background:

In December of 2017, I asked a group of students from the first class of 6th Grade GT students to investigate about plankton to present what they experienced to the Talbot County Board Of Education. Dr. Doug Levin, Bart Merrick and Dr Jamie Pierson attended as well. I spoke for all of 30 seconds before turning the rest of of or 15 minute time slot over to the students. Board member had the chance to talk with the students one-on-one about the program. They did an amazing job and "blew" their audience away. The local paper put us on the front page.

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Introducing the Team:

During the fall semester of 2016, I approached Shore Rivers, a non profit conservation group in Easton, Maryland, about the possibility of creating a gifted & talented middle school program for Talbot County’s 6th Grade GT students. This initial meeting grew from 3 individuals to a handful of world renowned and talented oceanographic researchers and engineers. Together we created a program like no other. After 3 years of refinement, we have implemented a program where students explore the waters of the world and perform real world studies in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries through a flipped classroom approach that uses problem based learning, principles of STE(A)M education, and hands on technological and engineering applications.

Through research, “CSI” like lessons, technology, and data collection, students realize the goal of the program; to develop an understanding of the importance of the collectively mightiest of organisms - plankton.

A special thanks needs to be given to the team of individuals who have helped make this program a possibility:

Shore Rivers: Suzanne Sullivan & Ellie Bassett

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies (UMCES): Horn Point Lab Dr. James Pierson & Katherine Fitzgerald

NOAA: Oxford Lab Bart Merrick

Center for Environment & Society at Washington College Dr. Doug Levin & Jemima Clark

Assemble Patrick Rogan

Pictured left to right: Katherine Fitzgerald, Jamie Pierson, Doug Levin, Jemima Clark, and Bart Merrick

Expedition Background

Students in the Talbot County Public Schools 6th Grade GT program develop an understanding of the importance of the collectively mightiest of organisms: plankton. Students explore the waters of the world and perform real world studies in the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries, and the watershed as a whole, through problem based learning, a flipped classroom, principles of STE(A)M education, and hands on technological and engineering applications.

Continuing last years initial success, students will embark on an expedition to discover plankton. It all begins with a "CSI" like real world game about the decline of the stellar sea lions in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Based on the occurrences in the game, students develop "theories" of what is happening. Through a bit of environmental detective work, students research each "theory" and prove or disprove the impact of each. Eventually, they will discover the impacts of the food chain and how copepods play an important role.

As a culmination of their learning, the students will attend a field trip to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences (UMCES) Horn Point Lab in Cambridge Maryland. Thanks to experts in the field of plankton, ROV design and the chesapeake Bay system, students will have the chance to build a plankton catching ROV, investigate the role of many species of plankton in the Chesapeake Bay, and have individual and small group conversations with world renowned oceanographers.

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