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Snorkeling to Sample Species in the Red Sea

By Emma L. Nason

06/08/2017

About two months ago, my colleague and I realized that by March the Saudi Arabian thermometer was going to soar. Temperature fluctuations in Saudi are predictable: December through February are blissfully pleasant, when even an outdoor barbeque is a possibility. There are some days when, for those of us accustomed to warmer climes, it can feel positively chilly. Chilly is a relative term and means anything below 23oC (73oF). By March, and increasingly as we move toward September, the heat is oppressive and means that little gets done outside.

Euan Riddell, the Environmental Systems and Society (ESS) teacher, and myself, the Biology teacher at The KAUST School (TKS), were keen to get our practical ecology lessons prepared and delivered before the mercury began to rise. Leave it too late in the school year for your quadrat sampling, and it is simply not possible to withstand the heat without becoming the embodiment of a shriveled prune.

At TKS, we teach the Diploma Program to Grades 11 and 12. This is a rigorous curriculum that keeps abreast with current thinking in each of the designated fields. The newest Biology syllabus has helpfully incorporated information on coral bleaching and microplastics, for example. As with all teachers around the globe, we are always considering how to make the subject content relate to our students in a genuine way so that the concepts will stay with our students long after they have graduated.

The KAUST School campus is situated one hour’s drive north of Jeddah within the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology compound. This is a 16.7 square kilometer compound that is fortunate enough to have approximately 16 km of coastline along the Red Sea. On our school doorstep is a high-ranking university that has wide and diverse specialties. One of these departments is the Red Sea Research Center. Connections between the university and school are strongly encouraged, and this allows for a dynamic dialogue in both directions. Discussions with Dr. Burton Jones, a professor of Marine Science, have meant that we can forge real and authentic connections with our school curriculum and the graduate students at the Center.

The IB encourages schools to use the resources that are accessible locally. This makes the IB diploma experience a unique one for every student, depending upon where in the world they take their program. An ecology unit taught elsewhere might draw on the biodiversity of a tropical rainforest or a river’s edge. We at KAUST have the fabulous opportunity to use the relatively untouched coral gardens of the Red Sea as our playground.

Euan and I wanted to use the local expertise to our best advantage and managed to establish connections with two students, Matt Tietbohl and Sara Wilson at the Red Sea Research Center, with the help of Prof. Jones. We decided that a class trip with specialists would allow us to achieve some data collection using sampling techniques as well as allowing our students to experience the wonder of the Red Sea.

We explained to Matt and Sara the different parts of the curriculum that we would love for our students to experience in the water. The pair came to our school and enthusiastically explained their research in high-school-friendly terms, giving a pre-brief about the interconnectedness of food chains in our part of the Red Sea. They also had a chance to show some images of the organisms that students could expect to see in order to help with identification.

On the following day, twenty-five Grade 12 students traveled by boat to an offshore coral reef an hour’s distance away where they could implement various sampling methods. Matt and Sara went ahead and carefully laid a line transect on the reef. Students were divided up into teams. They snorkeled up and down the transect lines in pairs, recording the organisms that they observed on their underwater clipboards.

Throughout our time in the ocean, Matt and Sara found organisms of interest and directed our students to what they saw. Students got a flavor of practical ecology and the challenges that ensue. One participant commented how hard it was to count fish when they insist on moving! The students have had the privilege of making links between the syllabus, binomial nomenclature, food chains and webs, adaptations, and the sampling of data collected.

Living near the open water and having access to top-level Red Sea researchers is a remarkable opportunity for our students, one that many people do not get to experience in a lifetime. How many of our TKS students will end up in marine research? Only time will tell. Suffice to say, they have had the best beginning that they can hope for. l




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