Dec 04, 2013 10:50am
PHOTO: ORCA students take to the Sound
November 18, 2013 - 12:00pm

ORCA allows high school students to earn college credit while learning oceanography. // Bob Neary

ORCA students divide into groups on the bow to get ready to take measurements of the water temperature, PH levels and collect sediment samples. // Nathaniel Lynch

Ten years ago, Ardi Kveven founded the Ocean Research College Academy with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. After a decade under her tireless direction the program continues to fuel the spirit of scientific inquiry among students.

Last week The Clipper was invited to accompany  Kveven and her students on their first boat trip this fall. After spending the first six weeks of the quarter in preparation, a boatload of eager students were ready for their first data-gathering voyage.

ORCA student Kaia McKinnon adds drops of formaldehyde to preserve a plankton sample. // Nathaniel Lynch

Filing up the gangplank the students chattered with expectation. As we left port, each research team was briefed on their area of focus. Lookouts were stationed at the stern and bow of the ship to record any kind of marine life en route. All told there were roughly 38 cormorants and one jellyfish. Much to our disappointment there were no sharks or giant squid.

As we stopped at our first research station, Dolphin 1, Kveven came topside asking, “what’s our depth?” Christian Houer, a second year student on the navigation team, answered without hesitation “9.3 meters.”

Kaia McKinnon, left, holds a plankton sample as Marlena Ward adds red dye to help count the plankton back in the lab. / / Nathaniel Lynch

The two teams stationed at the bow got to work. One collected samples for analyzing water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen. The other team dropped a weighted claw to the bottom to grab sediment samples.

The plankton team was astern using nets similar to cheesecloth, attached to a cylinder to capture plankton. Formalin, a water and formaldehyde solution was then added to each sample to preserve the plankton. Without this important step, said Alexis Dittoe, “the zooplankton eat all the phytoplankton,” leaving the students nothing to analyze.

ORCA student Taylor Cambbell lowers a rope with a weight on it to test the depth of the Puget Sound. // Nathaniel Lynch

Kveven later told me the plankton samples were of special interest on this trip. Each season offers benefits and hindrances to what students can measure on these expeditions. Plankton are usually focused on during spring and summer because their life cycle is dependent on photosynthesis. Students have lately found numbers atypical to the season and are searching for a reason why.

“Sometimes we can’t explain it, which is cool because you have all these models that you think make sense, but then you find something anomalous and go hmm … why is that?” said Kveven. Such critical thinking is core to the academy’s mission. The students get to piece together datasets to try and find answers to some of those anomalies.

ORCA students look out towards Hat Island in the Puget Sound. // Nathaniel Lynch

The results of this inquiring spirit are what drive the program’s funding. Data gathered during students’ first year becomes the basis for independent projects their second year.

Such is the case with ORCA senior Katherine Ball. Last year, she had some questions about micro plastics in Puget Sound. Through her pioneering research on the subject, the academy has been able to purchase a flow meter. The new tool will help Ball measure the effect current direction and speed have on micro plastic concentrations in the sound. 

A student collects the sediment sample out of the claw and puts it in a beaker to analyze later in the lab. // Nathaniel Lynch

Recent funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) has helped enhance ORCA’s ability to use the Puget Sound ecosystem in student research. The program is fortunate to have Puget Sound nearby, it is the only oceanography program in the nation that utilizes the local marine environment as part of the curriculum.

A little over a year ago, a grant from the NSF was used to construct a brand new research lab, replete with a 120-gallon seawater aquarium at Everett’s waterfront. Additional funds from the foundation have also made possible the construction of a new research vessel, scheduled for completion August 2014. The new boat, combined with the new land facility, will strengthen students’ research capabilities immeasurably. Until now they’ve chartered with a local tour boat for bi-monthly expeditions on the sound. 

ORCA student Andras Miahaly collects sediment samples by lowering a metal claw over the edge of the boat down to the bottom of the sound. // Nathaniel Lynch


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