By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Tupelo Middle School students held an octopus, saw a whale vertebrae and felt the smoothness of a shark’s skin during a lesson at the school on Thursday.
Greg Graeber, a marine educator at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, spoke with the school’s seventh-graders about the animals that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico. He also brought many dead creatures for them to touch and examine.
“We try to go to places where they don’t get a chance to come to the lab and experience science in the field,” he said “Science is a verb. It is not learning big words in a book. It doesn’t hit home until you see it up-close and personal.”
Graeber spoke to more than 500 students throughout the day. In addition to educating them about the state’s coastline, he hoped to spark an early interest in the field. He told them about the number of scientists likely to retire during the next 10 years, the low percentage of Americans studying the subject in universities and the job and scholarship opportunities available, especially for female and minority students.
“I get paid to work at the beach,” he told the students.
His message resonated with student Tatiana Crochrell, 13. When she was younger, she wanted to be a scientist, “because I wanted to invent something new.” That desire, which had waned, was rekindled, she said on Thursday.
“Now I do,” she said of wanting to enter the field. “I want to go to the ocean and see the animals and discover something no one has seen yet.”
Educators from the sea lab visit about 50 schools and 12,000 students each year, and also host about 10,000 annually at the lab. It also holds summer programs for middle and high school students and training for teachers. Tupelo Middle School seventh-grade science teacher Connie Gusmus has attended several of their workshops and invited Graeber to speak to the students.
“There is going to be a shortage of scientists, and if we can hook some of these young kids and get them interested, that is what I’m trying to achieve as a teacher,” she said.