Classroom to the sea and back

Elizabeth Nyman’s office door holds photos of the places she’s been — the island of St. Thomas, Paris, Egypt, Venice, Mexico.

And, soon, she’ll add photos from her most recent trip — her nearly two weeks aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship as scientists documented fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nyman participated on the research cruise as part of NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program, which offers teachers the opportunity to work with scientists as a way to enrich their classroom teaching.

The excursion is an unlikely research trip for a political scientist, but one that appealed to Nyman, who teaches international relations with an emphasis on maritime issues.

“I applied for the program to get a handle on maritime science, which is something I do not do,” said a laughing Nyman, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

She teaches world politics, international politics, ethics in international politics and international conflict and security. In her classes, she touches on maritime policies, ranging from control over fisheries populations to piracy issues.

The experience offered her a view of how research shapes the policy she teaches, she said.

“One of the things that I felt like was a real benefit of the Teacher at Sea program was to get a firsthand look at the science that would become the basis for marine policy,” she said.

In the past 23 years, 650 teachers have participated in the program. This year, more than 250 applied and Nyman was one of 25 selected to join research expeditions.

Nyman said she plans to share the experience with her students to also open their eyes to career opportunities in maritime research.

Researchers on the boat, Pisces, conducted a survey of reef fish populations off the coast of Florida, with Nyman joining the crew in Tampa, Fla., on May 27 and concluding her trip nearly two weeks later in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The trip was to end further north in Jacksonville, however, Tropical Storm Andrea cut the trip short one day.

The crew and scientists worked from sunrise to sunset. As a teacher at sea, Nyman had the opportunity to shadow all aspects of work on the ship from the gathering and reviewing of data to the ship’s bridge where she learned more about mapping and navigation.

On the research trip, the crew collected daily data on fish populations off the Gulf Coast using a 600-pound camera released into the water that recorded video of the types and sizes of fish.

The research team also caught fish to dissect and examine the sex organs to determine fertility and the earbones to find the fish’s age.

Nyman said she also learned more about the species of fish that populate the waters off of the Florida Keys: Spotted moray eel, silky sharks, red porgy and others.

The trip was ongoing, real-world science lesson filled with new facts, such as about the red porgy.

“As the fish grows in size, its sex changes from female to male,” Nyman said. “As a non-biologist, I found that really interesting.”

The trip offered insights into the different ways data is collected to assess the health of our marine ecosystems and fish populations, she said.

“This information is then used by NOAA to help form the basis for marine policies, as well as providing greater scientific knowledge about our nation’s oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. Since I primarily look at international ocean issues, the chance to see where the research begins was invaluable for me,” she said.

“This is where it starts,” she said of the research experience. “This is where the work comes from.”