Family STEM: Pass the STEM, please

By Lisa M. Blank, Oregon Coast STEM Hub

Engage the whole family in a lively mealtime STEM conversation!

bird's eye view of a dinner table crowded with dishes full of food and peoples hands passing the dishes around
Image credit: Shutterstock

Stress levels elevate when our ability to predict and control daily events erode. Given the unpredictability of life right now, establishing family dinner routines can provide a much-needed sense of security and feeling of belonging.


Dinnertime can also be a great time to support STEM learning! Family STEM conversations can provide insight into how others think, a safe place to try out new ideas, and an opportunity to practice using evidence to support explanations while learning more about STEM concepts and careers.

STEM conversations can be any family discussion where topics related to science, technology, engineering, or math connections are explored.


To get started, we suggest downloading the Family Dinner Projects STEM Conversations Starter Pack, which includes twenty STEM conversation starters such as, “Would you rather go for a walk in the forest or along the beach? Why?”                                                                           

“Would you rather go for a walk in the forest or along the beach? Why?”

Images: C. Goodwin

Here is one of our favorite STEM family conversation starters:


Hitchbot the robot sitting on a table

Have you heard of the hitchhiking travels of Hitchbot the Robot and how he met his untimely demise in Philadelphia after traveling throughout Canada and parts of Europe?                             

Image: Hitchbot in Canada (Wikimedia Commons)

If not, read this story with your family and start a conversation over tonight’s dinner with one or more of the questions below.

  • If you could drive, would you have picked up this hitchhiking robot if you passed him on the road? Why or why not?
  • Do you think we can/should trust robots? Explain.
  • Do you think robots should trust humans?
  • While some people are mourning the demise of Hitchbot, his creators see his journey as a success. What do you think about Hitchbot’s experiences?
  • Imagine you could invent a robot. What would it do?
  • If Hitchbot’s creators tried his journey again, do you think the same kind of thing would happen to him? Why or why not?

Questions provided by the Family Dinner Project

TIPS: 1) Hide a question under each family member’s dinner plate, or 2) pass around a bowl and have everyone randomly pick a question.

Hitchbot the robot sitting at a bar and a man hands him a bottle
Image: Hitchbot in the Netherlands (Wikimedia Commons)


To help keep your STEM conversations going, create a conversation jar to store your conversation starters. Leave a supply of blank strips nearby so family members can add their own ideas as well.

jar full of folded paper
Image credit: Shutterstock

If you have family members who do not live in the home with you, consider scheduling a virtual dinner party. Have each family member take a turn inviting a loved one and connect using Zoom, Facetime, Google Hangouts, etc.


Not Just for Dinner
There is no one way to have a STEM dinner conversation. In fact, STEM conversations don’t have to happen at the dinner table. There are many opportunities throughout the day that may work better. Perhaps when going for a walk, washing the dishes, or as part of a bedtime ritual. Find what works for you and your family.

Bon apetit!

Lisa M. Blank is the Director of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lessons on our website:

Reedsport Third Graders Learn About Watersheds through Meaningful Field Experiences

By Cait Goodwin, Oregon Sea Grant

Think back to when you were in elementary school. Did you participate in a field experience that was so impactful you can still remember it today? “Out of classroom” experiences provide teachers and students the ability to explore local places and relevant issues through hands-on activities and interactions with community partners. These meaningful learning experiences build exposure, connection and curiosity, and often resonate with students well beyond the trip.

Third grade teachers Cristina Bettesworth and Anna Villegas from Highland Elementary School in Reedsport have spent the 2019-20 school year attending multiple professional development workshops to learn strategies for providing meaningful watershed-focused experiences for their students. With guidance from local partners at Oregon Sea Grant and South Slough Reserve, they designed a learning unit filled with lessons and field trips that helped students learn about coastal ecosystems, human impacts, and stewardship. These Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences (MWEEs) are part of the MWEEs by the Sea project, funded by NOAA Bay-Watershed Education Training program.

MWEE Professional Development

MWEEs by the Sea workshops help teachers plan and implement lessons focused on local and global environmental issues.

Photo credit: C. Goodwin

Cristina and Anna planned their third-grade unit together around three main topics: watersheds, salmon, and marine debris. Each topic was introduced in the classroom, followed by hands-on field experiences and connections with environmental professionals that served to further solidify and expand on student learning.


A watershed is the area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet, such as into a river, bay, or other body of water.

After students were introduced to the topic of watersheds in the classroom, they took a field trip to South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Charleston in February. With the help of South Slough staff and volunteers, students explored the flora and fauna of the watershed. The students observed how the coastal forest stream is connected to the estuary, experiencing the components of a watershed first-hand as they hiked down from the ridgetop.

Students learn about natural inhabitants of a coastal watershed on a hike down to Hidden Marsh. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth

To expand on their knowledge of different watersheds, they also visited other sites, including a local beach. After observing different watersheds in person, the students were able to head back to the classroom and create clay models of regional watersheds to show how water flows through local systems.


Given the importance of salmon as a coastal resource, the Highland Elementary teachers knew it would be a natural fit to incorporate salmon studies into their MWEE unit. Salmon migrate between inland streams and the open ocean, showing students another way that land and sea are connected. In addition, parts of salmon life cycles can be experienced in the classroom, enabling students to study life cycles, an important 3rd grade learning standard!

With the help of volunteers from the Gardiner STEP (Salmon Trout Enhancement Program) facility and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife STEP biologist Evan Leonetti, the students set up tanks for hatching salmon eggs in their classrooms. Students collected water quality and other data and observed the salmon life-cycle in action as the eggs hatched and grew. When the fish were big enough, they were placed in a transfer tank and taken back to the STEP facility.

Young salmon hatched in the classroom are ready to be transported to the STEP facility. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth

In addition to hatching eggs in the classroom, the third graders headed off-school grounds and toured a hatchery, visited local salmon habitat, and some students even travelled to Salem to discuss salmon sustainability in south coast rivers.


Marine debris is any solid, persistent, human-created waste that has been deliberately or accidentally introduced into a waterway or ocean.

To engage their students with a human impact that they could not only see and relate to, but also do something about, Cristina and Anna built lessons around the topic of marine debris. The students started this section by learning and researching about marine debris, answering question like: What is it? Where is it? and What are the impacts and possible solutions to the problem of marine debris?

“Sometimes garbage ends up in a stream or river
and will flow into the ocean.”

– Annabelle A., Third Grade, Highland Elementary

To further excite students, teachers arranged to have Elizabeth Roberts from Make Art Not Trash visit their classroom. She shared her experiences cleaning up marine debris from remote beaches in Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine, and told the students about the ways she uses art to help people understand the issue.

“Marine debris is a big problem that affects all of us. It happens in all waterways and is not only a problem in the ocean. We can all do our part to solve the marine debris problem. We just have to pick up trash and make sure our trash gets into the correct places.”

– Brody S., 3rd Grade, Highland Elementary

Prepared for their field experience, the Highland Elementary 3rd graders took a field trip to Bandon, Oregon, to conduct a beach clean-up at Seven Devils State Park, and to visit the marine debris art exhibits at Washed Ashore. The students took the marine debris that they collected from the beach back to school, separated the trash by types (plastics, microplastics, foam, nurdles, etc.), and graphed their results so they could see what types of debris were most commonly found in their samples. Inspired by the art they had seen from community partners, students used some of the marine debris they collected to create their own art projects. In addition, they wrote essays about the problem of marine debris to help explain marine debris impacts and solutions to others.

“We can help the marine debris issue by picking up our garbage and cleaning our beaches.”

– Bodhi L., 3rd Grade, Highland Elementary

Students cleaned up a Bandon beach and were inspired by art made from marine debris. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth

Today, the students are working on creating and sharing their essays, art projects, displays and slide presentations with others. You can see some of the student work generated by this project here.

“We can help deal with the problem of marine debris by not using plastic products. We can reuse products so that they don’t end up in the ocean.”

– Uriah I., Third Grade, Highland Elementary

Cait Goodwin is a Special Projects Coordinator with Oregon Sea Grant Marine Education, and she coordinates the “MWEEs by the Sea” teacher professional development program in partnership with Jaime Belanger from South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Reedsport teachers Cristina Bettesworth and Anna Villegas from Highland Elementary are two of 17 South Coast teachers participating in the 2019-20 cohort.

Family STEM: Rube Goldberg Machines

By Lisa M. Blank, Oregon Coast STEM Hub

This post was created during Spring 2020 to help students and families engage in STEM together while staying at home. But you can use these ideas in the article any time!

Example of a Rube Goldberg machine
Image from

Rube Goldberg machines use a series of chain reactions to perform a simple task in the most ridiculously complicated way. In fact, the more complicated the better.

Rube Goldberg cartoon of a self-operating napkin

Why are these contraptions called Rube Goldberg machines? Because the idea began with a man named Rube Goldberg. He was an engineer turned cartoonist whose most famous cartoons chronicled “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butt.”

Image: Rube Goldberg comic
Wikimedia Commons

Today, Rube Goldberg machines are not just whimsical cartoon images, but are required projects in many engineering programs across the US and a growing national obsession. Learn more about Rube Goldberg and how he viewed his cartoons as social commentary.

To join in the fun and support your family in designing and building your own Rube Goldberg machine (and possibly picking up the laundry), follow the steps below.


Spark your family’s interest in building a Rube Goldberg machine by sharing this video about someone who uses one to serve himself a piece of cake.

Challenge your family to watch the video a second time with an eye for the materials and strategies used.

Don’t be intimidated! Your family’s Rube Goldberg machine need not be as complex as The Cake Server. (Also, we don’t recommend using open flames in your design!) Check out these cool builds by young learners:

And these by elementary-aged learners:


What will your machine do? As a team, decide what problem your family would like to solve. If this is a struggle, consider sharing some of the ideas below.

hand bell
  • Place dirty clothes in the hamper
  • Drop soap into a hand
  • Water a plant
  • Turn a light off/on
  • Fill a glass with water
  • Ring a bell

Image used under license from

Depending on the ages of your team members, you can set a minimum and/or maximum number of steps to solve the problem.

FUN FACT: In the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, engineering college students compete to design a machine that uses the most complex process to complete a simple task. Competing machines must be composed of a minimum of 20 steps and a maximum of 75, and they must complete their run in under two minutes. Teams are permitted to use no more than two air compressors, power cords, or water hoses. Elements of the machine may not travel beyond a 10-square-foot footprint, and machines can be no more than eight feet tall.


  1. Sketch out your machine before building it.
  2. Identify the materials you need. Here is a suggested material list from Tinkerlab.
  3. Start building! Test your designs as you go and make adjustments as necessary.
  4. If your team gets stuck, here are some Rube Goldberg techniques you can try:
(Image used under license from
  • Auto-tilt
  • Trigger
  • Flip Switcher
  • Page Turner
  • Ball Riser
  • Small Nudge

See each technique in action

Image used under license from


Explore how Rube Goldberg machines demonstrate Newton’s Laws.


Newton's Cradle

First Law: An object at rest stays at rest. An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. 

In other words, if an object is not moving, it will not start moving by itself. If an object is moving, it will not stop or change direction unless something pushes it.

Image used under license from

F = ma

Second Law: Force is equal to the change in momentum with a change in time. 

In other words, objects will move farther and faster when they are pushed harder.

Image used under license from

Example of Newton's Third Law

Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

In other words, when an object is pushed in one direction, there is always resistance of the same size in the opposite direction.

Image used under license from

To learn more visit:

Challenge your family to find examples in your team’s machine that demonstrate each of Newton’s Laws.

For example, let’s take Newton’s Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the video below, how can you use Newton’s Third Law to explain why the dominoes failed to fall in certain places?

Answer: Without an action or force, there can be no reaction.


1. Make a video of your creation and share it on the Oregon Coast STEM Facebook Page, or email a YouTube or Vimeo video (set to Public view). We can’t wait to see it!

2. Is your family tired of washing their hands? Give it a new twist by joining a Rube Goldberg Challenge.


Career Connections
Building a Rube Goldberg machine uses many of the same skill sets as a mechanical engineer. Most of the products in your life have been touched in some way by a mechanical engineer, from your shampoo bottles and microwave to your family’s car. If you enjoyed this challenge, check out this Educating Engineers link to earn more about a career in mechanical engineering.

Real-World Connections
What problems have emerged in your recent daily life that could be enhanced by a silly Rube Goldberg solution? Tackle a challenge that is relevant to a current situation, such as:

  • Turning on and off the sink faucet without touching the handle, or 
  • Delivering something to someone quarantined in another room

Lisa M. Blank was the Director of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub 2018-2020.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lessons on our website:

Georgia-Pacific Supports STEM

By CJ Drake, Georgia-Pacific

Georgia-Pacific is making a significant effort this year to support Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) learning on the Oregon Coast, especially in Lincoln County.

Representatives from the GP containerboard mill in Toledo recently presented the Oregon Coast STEM Hub (OCSH) with a $25,000 donation.

Loria Holden from Georgia-Pacific in Toledo presents a donation to Oregon Coast STEM Hub Director Lisa Blank.

“We support STEM because it encourages students to think critically, increases science literacy, and empowers the next generation of innovators,” said Loria Holden, health and safety leader at the GP containerboard mill in Toledo. “STEM also encourages students to pursue studies that may eventually lead to a career in the wood products and paper industry, of which GP is a global leader.” Holden serves as a STEM mentor in Lincoln County public schools and received her undergraduate degree in environmental engineering.

“We support STEM because it encourages students to think critically, increases science literacy, and empowers the next generation of innovators.”

OCSH is part of a statewide network of such organizations established to promote STEM and Career and Technical Education (CTE). Since its inception in 2014, OCSH has provided more than 22,000 hours of student STEM and CTE experiences, 9,020 direct hours of educator STEM professional development, and nurtured partnerships with 64 separate entities located up and down the Oregon Coast, from Brookings to Astoria.

“We’re delighted to have Georgia-Pacific as one of our business partners to help grow STEM and CTE skills among students and those aspiring to join the workforce,” said Dr. Lisa Blank, OCSH executive director. “Most careers and real-world challenges are multi-disciplinary. STEM and CTE introduce students to career pathways and provide core academic, employability and technical skills. GP’s support offers us additional opportunities to expand our reach.”

As an institutional partner of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub, Georgia-Pacific joins more than 60 other businesses, school districts, non-profit organizations, and government agencies partners, all of which are committed to fostering STEM futures on the Oregon coast. A representative from GP has held a seat on the OCSH Leadership Council since 2016, and four GP employees are currently serving as “Science Mentors” in Newport elementary school classrooms.

Apprentice Program Engages HS Grads

“Our apprenticeships lead to lifelong opportunities for candidates who want highly technical and challenging careers.”

Coastlines, Jan 2020

Public electric utility Central Lincoln has apprentice programs that train qualified replacements for the line workers, wiremen, tree trimmers, and meter shop technicians who are nearing retirement. Their January 2020 newsletter Coastline article “Careers Without College” features four graduates from Oregon coast high schools who are preparing for electric utility trade careers:

  • Lineman Apprentice Guy from Taft High in Lincoln City
  • Lineman Apprentice Cody from Newport High School
  • Tree Trimmer Trainee Talon from North Bend High School
  • Lineman Apprentice Michael from Marshfield High School in Coos Bay
“At the recent International Lineman Rodeo, Lineman Apprentice Guy won second place among apprentices from rural electric utilities, and placed 20th in Best of the Best Apprentices out of 321 competitors.”

Read the whole article to find out more about the steps coastal graduates are taking to pursue careers in electric utility STEM trades:

Central Lincoln PUD is one of more than 60 partnering organizations in the Oregon Coast STEM Hub, and its members serve on the OCSH Leadership Council, coordinate regional Mathcounts competitions, and volunteer as Science Mentors and STEM Judges.

Patience, Patience, Patience

This post is part of a series chronicling the September 12-15, 2019 research cruise on board the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s largest research vessel. This cruise was funded by Oregon Legislative funds through the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program. Coordination and additional support was provided by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

Follow the adventures of the students, educators, and researchers who are on board engaging in #STEMatSea.

By Noah Goodwin-Rice

It has now been a few days since we returned from our four-day cruise on the R/V Oceanus, so I have had ample time to reflect on my experience. More than anything else, I believe that this opportunity has helped show me the value in demonstrating patience while conducting work in the field.

In particular, this concept was impressed on me by Dr. Leigh Torres and her Ph.D. student Dawn Barlow while conducting cetacean surveys from the ship. At times during our surveys, the vessel would proceed for hours across the ocean without the slightest indication of any whales. Eventually, we would sight an individual off on the horizon; then, within the span of perhaps 30 minutes, we would find our ship surrounded on all sides by so many humpbacks that it became difficult to keep track of them all! I soon realized that, inevitably, the monotonous stretches of empty ocean we traversed would reward us with the sight of the animals we sought so much. And the animals were always a treat to see; I truly enjoyed the chance to observe the whales we saw each day.

two people looking out to sea from the deck of a ship

Of course, our time during the cruise wasn’t solely devoted to whale surveys. There were other lessons in the value of patience each time we took samples of the ocean floor, gathering information on benthic ecology. To take samples of the ocean floor at various locations on the cruise, we used a winch at the stern of the ship to lower a box coring device that would return a scoop of sediment to the surface.

Then, after each sample was recovered on the ship’s deck, our job became the rather tedious work of picking out any small invertebrates that were carried up along with the sediment. This prepared the biological contents to be analyzed later back on shore.

It could be monotonous work, but I actually found the job to be incredibly fulfilling. Each sample became almost like a scavenger hunt, and it was fun to come across the many different unique species of annelids, arthropods, cnidarians, echinoderms, and molluscs. As I changed out of my hard hat and waterproof gear at the end of each sampling session, it felt great to have accomplished something that would further our understanding of the ocean floor – even if each sample demanded a significant investment of time to process.

Looking back on my experiences this past week on the R/V Oceanus, I feel exceedingly grateful to have been able to participate in this special opportunity. One reason I was so keen to be a part of this research cruise is because I am currently in the process of considering which paths to pursue in my future. My experience these past several days at sea has helped me realize that this is a line of work that I might be interested in continuing, and this will likely play an important role in my ultimate choices in the coming months.

Five people in hard hats, facing forward
Students participating in the R/V Oceanus cruise (L to R): Noah Goodwin-Rice, Genevieve Coblentz-Strong, Abigail Kirby, Ashley Brust, and Avarie Owens

Noah Goodwin-Rice attends Newport High School, and has spent two summers working as an youth interpreter at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. He is also a youth volunteer at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and a member of the Aquarium’s “Nerdi Nautili” National Ocean Sciences Bowl team.

A Teacher’s Perspective

This post is part of a series chronicling the September 12-15, 2019 research cruise on board the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s largest research vessel. This cruise was funded by Oregon Legislative funds through the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program. Coordination and additional support was provided by Oregon Sea Grant, the Oregon Coast STEM Hub, and OSU’s Regional Class Research Vessel program.

Follow the adventures of the students, educators, and researchers who are on board engaging in #STEMatSea.

By Carisa Ketchen

I consider myself to be a reflective teacher and as we head back to Newport to end our four day adventure at sea, it’s the perfect time to do so. Throughout the last few days aboard the research vessel Oceanus, our team of researchers and students have been working with a variety of technology and cutting edge scientific tools. The crew worked together diligently to perform tasks that required a strict mindfulness of safety and we had to be quick on our feet to deploy and retrieve equipment safely out of the water.

The students and I took part in a variety of research objectives. There are multiple research components being conducted throughout the day and into the late evening hours. We typically started the day with a rotating whale watching schedule, looking for spouts and other activity such as breaching. When we encountered enough activity in one region, five of the science party would load into the Red Rocket (RHIB) to get a closer look with the goal of identifying specific whales, counting, and tracking their movements.

Most mornings began bright and early with the deploying and retrieval of the CTD device. With this tool we gathered data regarding temperature, conductivity, density, and fluorescence which is helpful in determining where we may see whales and provides clues that indicate the upwelling nutrients.

CTD deployment
Early morning deployment and retrieval of the CTD.

Plankton tows also took place in the early morning and evenings. Students attached the cod ends to the nets and then launched the dual plankton nets to be towed at a specific depth for several minutes. The depth and angles for the nets was determined by the information received from the CTD. After obtaining the plankton from the nets, we identified the organisms via microscope.

People empty the cod end of the black plankton net on the ship deck
After the plankton net has been towed through the water, the net is brought back on the deck and the contents of the “cod end” are collected in a bucket for examination.

Taking box cores happened throughout the day and into the late evening to scoop up sediment and organisms from the ocean floor. This included learning to operate the hydraulic A frame and hooking the box for safe retrieval. After a core sample was taken, it was time to start sifting for marine organisms. We found several brittle sea stars, various worms, hydras, clams, and a plethora of other micro marine organisms.

As a local high school science teacher at Toledo Jr. Sr. High School, this has been a phenomenal experience. I’m currently writing a variety of lesson plans that I can incorporate into my classroom this semester and for years to come. Some of these include construction of research vessels, living at sea, working with a crew, ocean topography, different whale species and their migration patterns, plankton, soil sampling, and specific lessons about the technology and equipment used on board. I’m excited to share my experiences with my students and to continue developing marine science curriculum in order to increase ocean literacy. Having participated in many other professional development opportunities with OSU, I had some background knowledge about the Oceanus vessel and its objectives for research. However, being able to actively participate on board and work directly with the lead researchers and students has provided the most important educational opportunity that I could ever have imagined possible. I am inspired by this research and feel a renewed sense of passion and energy that I can’t wait to share with my students.

“I am inspired by this research and feel a renewed sense of passion and energy that I can’t wait to share with my students.”

I have always been intrigued by the ocean and marine biology. I can recall as a young kindergartner daydreaming about the ocean and drawing whales in my scrapbook. It was my goal to move to the Oregon coast since I first visited in 2008, so when the opportunity came up to “Teach at the Beach” with Lincoln County School District, I applied immediately and was fortunate to be hired. This will be my third year living on the coast and I’m looking forward to many more.

Carisa Ketchen is a Science Teacher at Toledo Jr Sr High School in Toledo Oregon. She obtained a B.S. in Natural Sciences with a minor in Geology at Lewis-Clark State College, and a Master’s degree in Science Education from Montana State University. Since coming to the Oregon coast, Carisa has participated in a variety of Oregon Sea Grant funded professional development opportunities focused on coastal and marine science, including MBARI Earth, MWEEs by the Sea, and the Oregon Marine Scientist and Educator Alliance.

Sampling at Sea

This post is part of a series chronicling the September 12-15, 2019 research cruise on board the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s largest research vessel. This cruise was funded by Oregon Legislative funds through the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program. Coordination and additional support was provided by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

Follow the adventures of the students, educators, and researchers who are on board engaging in #STEMatSea.

By Abigail Kirby

My name is Abigail Kirby and I am writing this post while aboard OSU’s R/V Oceanus! Last Spring at the end of my junior year of high school I applied to be a part of this research cruise because I am absolutely enthralled with the ocean and everything it has hidden beneath its surface. My passion for all things marine bloomed in me at a very young age thanks to the beautiful South Slough Reserve, nestled on the Coos Bay of the Southern Oregon Coast. In the summer, I am hired on annually at the slough to help lead summer science camps as an education intern. Activities at camp often include trekking around the trails, exploring the beach, and conducting water-related experiments.

On board the ship, there are many graduate students and scientists working on separate projects and experiments. Notable among them is Dr. Leigh Torres, who is working to study the effects of human noise on gray whales by collecting samples of their defection events (poop) then analyzing these fecal samples for hormones that may indicate their stress levels. Also on board is Jessica Porquez, an OSU researcher who is studying seabird distribution and abundance, identifying individual species and recording their locations. And the esteemed Dr. Sarah Henkel (who I first had the privilege of encountering during a lecture at OIMB in July), a benthic ecologist, who conducts surveys of the ocean bottom and the animals that live there at the designated PacWave energy test site.

One of the best ways to test what is at the bottom of the ocean is through a method called box coring. Bolted to the stern of the Oceanus is an A-frame that is able to lift and deploy the heavy metal box that is sent to collect a sample of sediment from the seafloor. Many hands are required in deploying and retrieving the device. First, someone must turn on the A-frame and run the hydraulics while two other hands guide the box corer over the back of the boat. The device is lowered to the bottom where a trigger releases, and the jaws close, quickly enclosing the sediment inside the core. Using the power of hydraulics, it is then pulled up and retrieved using two long poles with a rope and hook set-up. Two hands hook the line over the handles and guide the box back into its resting place while the A-frame is maneuvered back to its upright position.

Once the sample is back in its stand, we open the double-doors on the top, and reach in with a centimeter ruler. We measure the depth of the sediment from top to bottom, and then also collect a bit of the surface in a small, marked container. The jaws are then forced open, releasing the sediment into a bucket that is placed underneath. From there it is transported to a sieve that is able to sift out the sand, leaving the organisms and solid debris behind. Using forceps, critters are put into a larger container which will be preserved to study later. This process is repeated for each core.

Some of the sea creatures found in the samples where an assortment of sand dwelling worms, proboscis and all, brittle stars and brittle star bits, small bivalves, and tiny little sea snails.

female with binoculars looks out to sea
Abbie surveys the sea from the flying bridge

Although I do love marine science, it is not necessarily what I will choose to pursue as a career, or at least not directly. My goal is to study infectious diseases, especially those of the viral kind and the “spillover” effect that allows them to jump from animal host to our own species. I’d like to be able to make conclusive connections between emerging viruses and the climate change that humans have imparted on our planet. I hope to one day study the spillover effect between humans and marine life, and then establish a direct link to our climate pollution.

Overall, this trip has been a blast and I am thankful to each and every person who helped get me here.

Abigail Kirby is senior at North Bend High School. She spends her summers working as an education intern at South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Charleston, and has volunteered for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) program.

Passion and Excitement

This post is part of a series chronicling the September 12-15, 2019 research cruise on board the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s largest research vessel. This cruise was funded by Oregon Legislative funds through the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program. Coordination and additional support was provided by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

Follow the adventures of the students, educators, and researchers who are on board engaging in #STEMatSea.

By Genevieve Coblentz-Strong

My name is Genevieve and I am a senior in the Early College High School program. I have always had a strong interest in the ocean, and I have wanted to pursue a career in oceanography since seventh grade.

I chose to apply to this R/V Oceanus research cruise for the opportunity to work with scientists doing various research projects and to get the opportunity to meet fellow high school and undergrad students who share my passion and excitement for the ocean. I have not been disappointed! All the students on board have gotten hands-on experience deploying the CTD, box core, and the plankton net, while also learning how to spot and identify marine mammals and sea birds. I can’t imagine a better way to teach students about the ocean and what it takes to be a researcher.

Three people prepare the CTD instrument on deck
Preparing the CTD

Yesterday, we spent the entire morning cruising on the Oceanus looking for whales. Finally, in the early afternoon, we spotted some blows on the horizon. As we got closer, more and more whales started appearing and they were identified as humpbacks. The swell was big, but we braved the waves to go take ID photos of the humpbacks. We boarded a small boat aptly named the Red Rocket. After a few minutes of searching, we came up upon a group of three humpbacks. It was so cool to see the whales up close and I really got an appreciation for how big they are. All three humpbacks fluked at the same time, so we were able to get great ID photos! It was an amazing experience to be able to work with researchers and see the whales that close to the boat. The chief scientist on board has a permit that allows the Oceanus and Red Rocket to approach the whales. It is illegal to approach the whales if you don’t have a permit.

Four people in the red rigid hull inflatable boat
The chief scientist on board has a permit that allows the Oceanus and Red Rocket to approach the whales. It is illegal to approach the whales if you don’t have a permit.

Today, we saw lots of mola mola sunfish, egg yolk jellies, and shearwater birds. Some of the science party was sitting downstairs resting when a text came through from the flying bridge, the viewing deck where we watch for marine mammals and seabirds; orcas had been spotted! Everyone dropped what they were doing and rushed to the flying bridge. There, four orcas swam by the boat and put on a quick show for us before they were on their way again. Before they left, they swam right under the Oceanus and we could see them under the water! It was very exciting! Right before dinner, we spotted our first whales of the day (orcas are dolphins), a humpback mother and calf pair! I can’t get over how incredible these animals are! We waited for the mother and calf to surface a few more times before we headed off in search of more whales.

killer whales
Orcas, or “killer whales”, are the largest member of the dolphin family.

I have learned so much in the past few days! This research cruise has allowed me to explore part of what it takes to be a research scientist and I look forward to the possibility that I could someday work with these scientists and fellow high school students again. 

Genevieve Coblentz-Strong attends Sunset High School and Portland Community College. Genevieve is also a youth volunteer at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and is captain of the Aquarium’s “Nerdi Nautili” National Ocean Sciences Bowl team.

A Jam-Packed First Day

This post is part of a series chronicling the September 12-15, 2019 research cruise on board the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s largest research vessel. This cruise was funded by Oregon Legislative funds through the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program. Coordination and additional support was provided by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

Follow the adventures of the students, educators, and researchers who are on board engaging in #STEMatSea.

By Ashley Brust

My name is Ashley and I am an undergrad who is a part of the science party here on the Oceanus. I am a sophomore at Oregon Coast Community College and currently enrolled in the Aquarium Science Program. My passion for marine science first began when I was little and attended Hatfield Marine Science Center Day Camps. I attended every year until I “aged out.” Now I am doing everything I can to pursue my passion, which includes this research cruise. Fortunately, I was chosen to be a member of the science party on this vessel and am learning all types of new things, such as surveying whales, sea birds, taking box core samples, and collecting/identifying plankton.

We get to work with experts and do a lot of hands on work, which is totally awesome. Today we began with a really yummy breakfast, went over some safety rules, and ran some drills. This ultimately resulted in us trying on large red survival suits and using a fire hose. Next we found ourselves at the stern of the boat collecting box core samples (grabbing sand off the ocean floor) and digging out organisms that reside in the sediment.

three people bring the box core sample on board the ship
Ashley (L) helps bring up the box core sample.
people sorting through a sediment sample
examining the sediment sample

Before we knew it, we were up on the “flying bridge” with binoculars in our hands surveying the vast ocean for any signs of whales. There were so many humpback whales breaching, coming up and breathing, and showing off their flukes for us. This was great because the scientists’ goal was to capture pictures of the unique underside of the whales’ flukes.

We left that station for a moment to fuel up our bodies with some delicious lunch and made our way back up to the whales when we finished. Another task we helped with was surveying/identifying sea birds which was really fascinating to learn the methodology. I originally thought you would identify the birds based off their plumage, but it turns out their flight pattern helps most, along with some other physical features such as bill length.

The most exciting adventure today was the students got to pursue whales in a smaller inflatable boat. The whales were so close to us it was truly magnificent and something I will never forget. The purpose behind this was to, again, try and snap photos of their flukes to identify individual whales.

six people and a bongo net
Leigh Torres (R) and Dawn Barlow (L) from the OSU GEMM Lab orient students to the bongo net.
students deploy bongo nets of the side of a ship

After dinner we made way to the side of the vessel and deployed bongo nets which would allow us to gather plankton. We brought our samples back into the vessel and began to study them under the microscopes to attempt to identify them.

There were so many neat little creatures swimming around in our petri dishes, like comb jellies, copepods, shrimp larvae, amphipods, and many more. The most interesting thing I got to observe was all the microplastics we also found.

I wasn’t surprised because I knew that our oceans are contaminated with plastics, but it was just very eye opening to see how bad it truly is.

We finally ended our day by coloring Styrofoam cups with permanent markers to send down to the bottom of the ocean and shrink under the enormous pressure. Overall the first day was jam-packed with fun activities and now we are all ready to rest and do it all over again tomorrow.

shrunken Styrofoam cups

Ashley Brust is a second-year student in the Aquarium Science Program at Oregon Coast Community College, and a veteran of Hatfield Marine Science Center summer day camps.