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Local teacher sets sail for science research

Kevin McMahon, a teacher at Renfroe Middle School, is participating in the Teacher at Sea program through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on its ship Pisces. Photos provided by Kevin McMahon and NOAA

Hands-on learning is becoming increasingly important in the classroom as state tests change to reflect the hows and whys, not just the whens and wheres of a fact. One Decatur teacher is taking his hands-on learning experience on a research fishing vessel in the Atlantic.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is charged with studying the oceans and skies across the globe with particular focus on the United States. The National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are both subgroups within NOAA.

McMahon holds a 11.67 kilogram red grouper.

McMahon holds a 11.67 kilogram red grouper.

Sixth-grade earth science teacher Kevin McMahon will be part of NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program, sailing on the ship Pisces starting around July 5.

“Early on when I was back in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do, marine biology was something I had toyed around with,” McMahon said. “I actually spent a summer in college at Duke University’s marine lab in Beaufort, N.C. I have always had an interest in marine biology and now I am coming back full circle.”

McMahon, who be came a teacher after a stint as a lawyer, said that NOAA’s research fits in with the curriculum he teaches at Renfroe Middle School.

“We study everything related to the Earth: geology, meteorology, oceanography and astronomy, comparing our Earth to other planets,” he said. “It’s a perfect fit for what we teach in the earth science classroom. I am really excited to take this experience and bring it back to the students.”

Jennifer Hammond, director of the Teacher at Sea program, said that is precisely NOAA’s mission in sending educators out with researchers.

A chevron trap is named for its unique shape and used to catch fish for study.

A chevron trap is named for its unique shape and used to catch fish for study.

“We partner the teachers with scientists and they work 12-hour shifts 12 to 14 days at a time, gathering and analyzing the data,” Hammond said. “The goal is to give them an opportunity to learn about our research and bring their enthusiasm and excitement back to their students.”

McMahon and the crew of the Pisces will be studying red snapper and grouper populations off the east coast, departing from Morehead City, N.C. These populations are important, Hammond said, because they are a popular food and are, therefore, susceptible to overfishing.

“That ultimately impacts us as the public,” Hammond said. “So, he is going to help collect reef fish, stock assessments and understand the distribution and habitat for the reef fish.”

The program has so far sent more than 650 teachers across the country out to sea. Many like McMahon have an interest in marine biology, , but others just want that hands-on learning. Then, those teachers come back and are invited speakers at conferences, local events and just in front of their students. That way, NOAA’s mission is broadcast.

“Our main goal is to monitor and evaluate what is happening on the Earth and provide safe navigation through the United States waterways,” Hammond said. “First, we want people to understand the kind of research NOAA does and how it impacts their lives. Second, there are career opportunities that are available at NOAA. [The teachers] spend a lot of time interviewing our crew on the vessels. There’s a research components but we also want people to understand the different STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers we have available–things you wouldn’t think of.”

McMahon said he was in the process of packing, consulting with a teacher who previously had participated in the program on what to bring and leave behind. He said he was unsure of what exactly he would be doing onboard, but he was ready to get started.

“I am very excited right now and a little bit nervous about how my body is going to react to being on a boat for two weeks,” McMahon said. “The more I talk with folks the more excited I get. The main thing is I really want to give my students a chance to experience what scientists really do and understand that there’s so much more to learn about the world.”

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