STEM in Libraries

Lincoln County Libraries Distribute Free Science Activity Bags to Kids

Six public libraries in Lincoln County are distributing more than 800 free bags of science activities for kids, thanks to a grant that the Oregon Coast STEM Hub received from the Georgia-Pacific Foundation. Over the past few weeks, STEM Hub staff have been stuffing the bags with supplies and activity instructions and delivering them to libraries. Depending on the intended age group, each bag includes items such as: a magnifying glass, colored pencils, plastic specimen box, pen, journal, lanyard, rubber ball, tape measure, tweezers, eye dropper and a paper microscope called a Foldscope. The supplies support seven daily challenges that help kids to think critically and to observe, deconstruct, create, and draw. The instructions for seven Daily Challenges are provided in both English and Spanish. For more information, visit the new STEM in Libraries webpage.

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STEM in Libraries webpage:


The STEM Activity Books were originally created for STEM Week Oregon 2020. Funds to support STEM in Lincoln County libraries was provided to the Oregon Coast STEM Hub by the Georgia-Pacific Foundation. Georgia-Pacific is a partner of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub. Read more

Gold Beach Students Explore Watershed Issues

By Cait Goodwin, Oregon Sea Grant
with Debra Watson, Riley Creek School and Lindsay Carroll, Oregon Sea Grant

When rain falls on Riley Creek School, where does it end up? Are there pollutants in the watershed that could travel to the ocean? Debra Watson’s 5th grade students wanted to find out.

On a rainy day in December, the students headed outside to collect data that could help answer some of their questions. “It was a day when we were having rain and 60MPH gusts of wind, so we were WET!” recalled Debra. Walking around the schoolyard, students observed that the grounds were generally free of litter. But, what about the dog poop they observed near the school? Would the dog poop have an impact on surrounding areas? This led to a great discussion about what is in rainwater and where it goes. The students were left curious about where the water runoff from their playground went after it disappeared down the storm drain.

Riley Creek School is located just south of the Rogue River in Gold Beach, Oregon, and is named after a small creek that flows into the Pacific Ocean. Its location provides students with ample opportunities to explore the watershed and to make connections between the land and sea.

Debra began planning her watershed unit in November, when she first joined a cohort of other south coast teachers in a year-long MWEEs by the Sea project. “MWEE” stands for Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences, a framework used by the NOAA Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program, which funded a professional development series facilitated by Oregon Sea Grant in partnership with South Slough Reserve. To ensure field experiences would be “meaningful” for their students, Debra and the other MWEE teachers created long-term project-based learning units that would take their students on repeated, hands-on trips outside to learn about watersheds, local environmental issues, and stewardship opportunities.

Debra Watson participated in several teacher professional development trainings in 2019-20. In this photo she is taking part in a workshop focused on marine debris. Photo credit: C. Goodwin

Here are some highlights from Debra’s classroom activities in early 2020.

After their initial stormy field experience, the Riley Creek 5th graders spent the early weeks of January learning more about their watershed through readings, discussions, and videos. To introduce her students to the problem of plastic pollution in the watershed and ocean, Debra used curriculum from Washed Ashore and then took her students on a field trip to the exhibits in Bandon. “The students got to work on pieces for a condor sculpture, and they just thought the museum was the coolest thing they had ever seen.” said Debra. “They were thrilled to be there.”

three students examine a wall mural showing ocean gyres
Riley Creek 5th Grade Field trip to Washed Ashore.
Photo credits: Debra Watson

To prepare for their trip to Washed Ashore, local artist Elizabeth Roberts from Make Art Not Trash visited the students in their classroom. Her presentation about marine debris and the conversations that followed helped set up the students to understand what they would be seeing during their out of classroom experience. “They all know what a gyre is now,” Debra reported, “and they were able to match the artistic mural of gyres that they saw on the wall at Washed Ashore with the NOAA pictures they had seen back in the classroom.”

In February, Debra’s students conducted experiments to learn more about the characteristics of marine debris. They made hypotheses about whether different types of plastics were likely to sink or float in water, and then tested their ideas. They observed how plastics can hang in the water column and create a “soup”, how bottles full or empty behave differently, and how plastics might look like food to wildlife.

Late in the month, the students took a field trip to the new state-of-the-art Gold Beach Sewage Plant, as well as to the Water Treatment Plant located 5 miles upriver.

The students found out the differences between the two plants, and learned that their drinking water comes from the Rogue River.

“We are in the Rogue River watershed.”

Two Plants: One processes wastewater from people’s houses, and one gives us clean water to drink.

Back at school, the 5th graders spent time outside exploring Riley Creek and collecting macroinvertebrates. These “water bugs” helped them better understand the health of the creek.

By March, the students were ready to brainstorm the issues they wanted to explore further. They discussed their interests and ideas, formed groups, and narrowed down the topics to a few main projects:

  1. Dog Poop – How does dog poop that is not picked up affect the school field, grassy play areas, and stormwater that flows to the ocean? This group was interested in coming up with policies, outreach messages, and other strategies to change the behavior of dog owners. 
  2. Marine Debris Art – How can we help the public understand the problem of marine debris? This group was interested in creating art projects that communicate marine debris impacts and solutions.
     – See examples of projects
  3. Beach Clean Up – What can students do to remove debris from local beaches? This group was interested in working with SOLVE to organize and advertise a beach clean-up event.
  4. PSAs – What kinds of things can people do to protect the environment? This group used to create digital media public service announcements.
     – See examples of projects here and here
  5. Inventions – What solutions could we design to address the problem of plastic pollution? One team in this group focused on ideas for inventions that would keep plastics from going down storm drains, and another team worked on designing an instrument that would separate microplastics from sand.
    Hear a student describe his design
Students working on projects at school.
Photo credit: Debra Watson

Today, as school has transitioned to distance learning, Debra and her 5th grade students remain enthusiastic about the topics they have been working on together. “We had just begun working when the pandemic hit” said Debra. Unfortunately, plans for additional field trips were canceled, and student projects were left in a variety of stages when schools closed. To see some of the projects students have been working on this year, visit this Student Work Folder.  For now, the Riley Creek team agrees: “We really enjoyed learning about watersheds!”

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. Gold Beach teacher Debra Watson from Riley Creek School is one of 17 South Coast teachers participating in the 2019-20 MWEES by the Sea cohort.

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.

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.

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.

Chasing Whales

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 Ava Owens

Imagine climbing into a small, six-person boat in the middle of the ocean. The ocean is rolling you with small whitecaps licking the underside of what is deemed the ‘Red Rocket’. This isn’t a rescue, escape or recon mission, but rather a research one.

At around eleven miles off-shore, whale watching on the flying bridge was busy. Humpbacks were being spotted left and right by their fluking and breaching. Marine mammal spotting surveys were happening on the flying bridge, cataloging information such as species, numbers of animals, their distance from the boat and their activities (feeding, breaching, etc.) Something you cannot do from the flying bridge is identify individual animals, so we donned our finest waterproof gear, hardhats, a camera with a telephoto lens, GPS and a notepad to write down sightings. We carried these items over the side of the Oceanus and into the Red Rocket. What we were looking for were identifying features on a whale’s body. The pattern on a humpback whale’s flukes (the underside of their tail) is unique to itself only, just like our fingerprints are unique to each of us. This is the reason for the camera, as researchers wanted to identify and document specific animals base on these patterns.

three people in a red rigid hull inflatable boat
Launching the “Red Rocket”

The Red Rocket, once untied from the Oceanus, took off to follow some whales seen by the spotters on the flying bridge. The humpbacks we were following were about three times the size of our boat, meaning the experience was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Once we got close enough for that crucial I.D. photo, it was off to find another whale.

Lots of our time spent in the Red Rocket was waiting to spot something. After that first initial whale I.D., the flying bridge had a lull. We used this time not just to search, but to mark the whale sighting on the GPS as well as write notes about the whales behavior, number of whales and what pictures were of that specific whale.

On one of our missions further away from the boat, a pair of humpbacks dove in a feeding behavior. They dive down and stay down for three to four minutes, feeding. We hadn’t gotten a picture of those whales yet, so we stayed in what is called a fluke print. When a whale flukes, it creates this still pattern in the water that disrupts the normal ocean waves. Chances are these two whales would resurface in the same general area, meaning the fluke print is a great place to wait and watch for the pair.

female looking out to sea with binoculars
Looking for whales from the flying bridge

These I.D. photographs are extremely important for whale researchers as they can track individual whales’ migration patterns. These surveys are a great non-invasive way to catalogue individuals as well as estimate a total number of whales seen in one area. One of our researchers aboard has a permit to get closer to marine mammals, as it is illegal to approach any marine mammal without a research permit. Even with that research permit, there are still strict rules to follow to make sure no one disrupts the whales.

My time aboard the R/V Oceanus is my first experience with marine animal related hands-on research. My usual forte is marine education, giving public speeches to bridge the divide between people and the sea. I am so thrilled to be a part of this research cruise and to have more hands-on experience that I can relate to while speaking to the public. Lots of what I am passionate about has to do with microplastics in our ocean, so coming face to face with massive filter feeders that are getting plastic with their meals has given me even more insight on how we need to change our ways for the better.

four females sitting on couches, facing forward
Students relaxing in the ship’s lounge. Left to right: Ashley Brust, Genevieve Coblentz-Strong, Avarie Owens (blog post author), and Abbie Kirby.

Ava Owens is a high school student from Waldport, Oregon. She attends Baker Web Academy and is dual-enrolled at Oregon Coast Community College. Ava is also a youth volunteer at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and is a member of one of two Aquarium teams competing in the “Salmon Bowl”, Oregon’s regional National Ocean Sciences Bowl competition.

Bon Voyage, R/V Oceanus

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 Tracy Crews

Four high school students, one high school teacher, one community college student, and three graduate student will accompany OSU researchers on this cruise that will study seabird and marine mammal distribution off the Oregon Coast and correlate sightings with prey abundance and oceanographic data. On this trip, we hope to deploy drones to help quantify sightings and document marine mammal behavior, and to launch a smaller boat from the research vessel to collect fecal samples from whales. In addition, students will work with benthic ecologists to collect box core samples to learn about oceanographic sediments found in various locations and the organisms living within.

This cruise is not just an opportunity for researchers to collect valuable information about Oregon’s marine ecosystems and the diverse organisms that call these areas home, but an amazing opportunity for students to participate in hands-on, career connected learning. While serving as part of the science party, they get a unique glimpse into life at sea and the lives of the female researchers leading this expedition.


Wednesday was a busy day for researchers, their graduate students, and the ship’s crew aboard the R/V Oceanus, as they worked together to “mobilize” for their four day STEM research cruise. Oceanographic equipment was loaded, tested, and tied down. Duffle bags full of boots, rain gear, gloves, cameras, and binoculars were hauled up the ship’s gangway and down multiple flights of ladders to small staterooms with bunk beds that would serve as our homes for the next five days. Packing for a research cruise is much more intense than packing for vacation. It’s not just the extra amount of gear required to live and work comfortably at sea, but the knowledge that once you leave the dock there is no way to replace what is missing or what might break. So we pack multiples of almost everything.

Getting Underway

On Thursday, students and other cruise participants spent the first hours of the morning going through safety drills, donning life jackets and immersion suits and learning how to use a fire hose.

Once safety drills were complete, the ship left the dock and headed out under Newport’s Yaquina Bridge to the open ocean!

Coming up next: Learning to conduct research at sea on the very first day of the cruise.

Tracy Crews manages Oregon Sea Grant’s marine education program and is responsible for coordinating the R/V Oceanus shipboard experience for students and teachers.

Coastal Students Head Out to Sea on the R/V Oceanus

By Tiffany Woods from Oregon Sea Grant

NEWPORT, Ore. – High school and college students and a science teacher will learn to conduct research at sea Sept. 12-15 aboard a ship operated by Oregon State University.

The three high schoolers boarding the Oceanus are from Newport, Waldport and North Bend. The teacher, Carisa Ketchen, is from Toledo Jr/Sr High School. They will be joined by two undergraduates from OSU and Oregon Coast Community College as well as three OSU graduate students. The graduate students – two of whom have been on research cruises before – will serve as mentors for the other students.

Participants will learn about marine-related careers, what it’s like to live and work at sea, and how to work as a team to accomplish a variety of research tasks, said Tracy Crews, who manages Oregon Sea Grant’s marine education program and is coordinating everyone’s participation in the cruise.

“We’re trying to get the next generation of researchers excited to join the ranks,” she added.

The lead researchers will be Leigh Torres, a marine mammals scientist with Oregon Sea Grant and the OSU Extension Service; Sarah Henkel a seafloor ecologist in OSU’s College of Science; and Jessica Porquez, a seabird researcher at OSU.

The cruise, which will depart from and return to Newport, is funded by the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program at OSU, Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The students will learn to collect sediment and animals from the ocean floor at a future wave energy test site off the coast of Newport. The goal is to collect baseline data to see how conditions might change over time after the wave energy devices are operating.

Coastal students and teachers participating on the 2018 research cruise deploy a CTD.

The students will also learn to collect plankton and to deploy equipment that records oceanographic data at different depths. They will also identify and count seabirds and marine mammals off the Oregon coast, with the aim of correlating their distribution to oceanic conditions and the location of prey. Additionally, the students will learn how researchers use camera-equipped drones to film whales. Torres hopes to launch a small boat from the Oceanus to collect whale poop. The samples would later be analyzed in a lab to understand the whales’ diet and stress levels.

“Since blue whales are being seen in significant numbers, we are hoping to encounter them in addition to gray whales and humpbacks,” Crews said.

The crew will also launch an unmanned, 5 ½-foot sailboat built and decorated by students at the Career Tech High School in Lincoln City. It contains a GPS unit that will allow students to track the boat’s location. The aim is to for students to monitor forecasted wave and wind conditions and predict where the boat will go. A note inside with contact information will encourage anyone who might find the boat to correspond with the students at Career Tech.

The students on the cruise will write about their experiences on the Oregon Coast STEM Hub’s blog and on its Facebook page.

This will be the third year that faculty with Oregon Sea Grant have led cruises on the Oceanus for students and teachers. Crews and Torres led expeditions in 2016 and 2018.

This project, entitled “Diversifying the STEM Pipeline through Oceangoing Research and Near-Peer Mentoring”, is led by Tracy Crews of Oregon Sea Grant. Funding is provided by the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program at OSU, Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.