R/V Weatherbird II Sets Sail With Student, Science Aboard

By Vickie Chachere


ABOARD THE R/V WEATHERBIRD (April 23, 2010) They came from the mountains of Colorado, from as far away as Alaska, from the suburbs of Boston and small town Mississippi, but for a group of students competing in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl in St. Petersburg this weekend, the first stop in their quest for a national title was a scientific research cruise aboard USF’s research vessel, the Weatherbird II.


To view a photo album of the voyage, visit the USF Facebook Page.


The students spent much of Friday on a journey through lower Tampa Bay, watching as scientists used specialized nets to catch sea organisms as small as plankton and as large as fish and mollusks. USF researchers also deployed 3-D scanning sonar off the side of the Weatherbird to show the students how scientists make maps of the oceans floors, and discussed how scientists from different disciplines all collaborate for a better understanding of the oceans.


The idea, said USF Geological Oceanographer Al Hine, was to give budding young scientists a taste of what the life of a marine research scientist is all about.


"It's easy for them to see things on TV. It's easy for them to look at the Internet, but there's nothing like going out to sea," Hine said.


USF is hosting the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, one of the nation's premier academic competition, April 23-25. Teams representing 25 regions of the country and 125 students will spend three days learning about the Tampa Bay ecosystem and marine science in the area before starting the first rounds on Saturday. The finals are scheduled for Sunday in St. Petersburg.


The National Ocean Sciences Bowl attracts some of the top high school scientists in the nation -- students who are destined for prestigious research universities and, at a tender age, already talk of plans to go to medical school, pursue careers in biotechnology or devote their energies to understanding the complexities of marine life and climate change.


"I absolutely love the ocean," said Madelaine Verbeek, a Durant High School student who is a member of the team representing the west coast of Florida in the national competition. "I want to work in the oceans. ... I want to do everything I possibly can to make a difference for the oceans."


The hands-on learning was an irrestistable part of the day. As USF researchers pulled long nets to catch fish and mollusks for the students to see, they eagerly scooped their specimens up and tossed them back in to the bay. They crowded into a lab to watch tiny shrimp and crab larvae swimming through a water sample, and observed as it took seven strong crew members to hoist a single sonar scanner up the side of the Weatherbird after it swept the bay floor just underneath the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.


Jack Lundt, who spent 32 years as a science teacher from Fort Collins, Colo., came out of retirement to coach the Poudre High School team, said academic competitions are a great way to challenge academically talented students, but getting them out into new environments for hands-on learning experiences opens their eyes to scientific careers they never knew existed. The students don't lack for dedication - most said they routinely spend two or three hours a day several days a week preparing for their competition.


"This is a really cool experience," said Aaron Fox, a junior at Lincoln Sudbury High School near Boston. "I like science - all sciences."


The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.