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Education & Outreach

All Aboard the School of Rock

The JOIDES Resolution, a 143-meter (469-foot) drill ship originally designed for oil exploration and converted for scientific exploration of the ocean floor in 1985, now has another new gig: It doubles as a floating classroom.

Teachers work around a core sampling table in a laboratory on board the JOIDES Resolution to describe and sample cores recovered from the ocean floor — part of the School of Rock expedition. Photograph is courtesy of IODP-USIO.

In November 2005, the research vessel was in transit from Victoria, British Columbia, to Acapulco, Mexico. But for the first time in the vessel’s 28-year history, she also brought along 13 nonscientist passengers — 10 middle- and high-school teachers, two museum educators and one textbook publishing consultant — who took advantage of the ship’s 16-day break between scientific expeditions to take a crash course in all things ocean drilling.

The program, dubbed the School of Rock, aims to show the teachers everything from how the ship works to how scientists sample the ocean floor. On their journey, the teachers were guided by a pair of scientists who have sailed on many expeditions and are currently conducting active research on drilled ocean sediment cores.

“They covered essentially everything [scientists] do out on the ship,” says Matt Niemitz, education associate with the Joint Oceanographic Initiative (JOI) Learning Education program, which works with the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) to organize the course. The scientific topics of the first expedition, Niemitz says, ran the gamut of oceanography, including plate tectonics, paleomagnetism, seismic surveying, geochemistry and past climate change.

In their own classrooms, the teachers cover many of these subjects, but found themselves telling students, “‘we know this because experts tell us,’ rather than, ‘we have this evidence,’” Niemitz says. After their experience at sea, however, they reported that they were now able to not just state the conclusions, but also explain how scientists came up with those conclusions, he says. “They said they learned how we know what we know about Earth.”

The teachers did have homework, of a sort: While at sea, they collaborated with each other to compile what they were learning into 15 ocean-science-related classroom activities for high school and middle school curricula, which, once finalized, will be available on the School of Rock’s official Web site ( this fall. For her inquiry-based curriculum, earth science teacher Julie Marsteller, from Hoover Middle School in Rockville, Md., chose to focus on the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) geologic boundary 65 million years ago, when nearly 70 percent of all species on Earth, including the non-avian dinosaurs, became extinct (see Geotimes, February 2005). Marsteller recently spoke with Geotimes reporter Carolyn Gramling about studying at sea, choosing the right drill bit and making very thin slides.

CG: What appealed to you about the School of Rock program?
I teach science, and it’s always a charge for a teacher to experience what you teach. ... It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — the first time they were allowing the public to get in there [on the ship] and start using material to write curriculum that actually meets national standards.

CG: Walk me through a typical day at sea.
There wasn’t a typical day. … We learned the engineering, how the ship actually works, even where they store food. They [the scientists] go out for two-month periods and can’t bring anything in. The next thing we learned was the drilling process, how they go through the steps of taking a sample — how they screw these 10-foot-long steel pipes together and insert the plastic material to put the core sample in, how they figure out which drill bits to put on it. [The choice of drill bit has to do with what will disturb the samples the least.] It gives you a whole new respect for what they do. The last thing we did was learn how scientists go through and analyze the sediment. We’d wake up in the morning, and it was nonstop — I found myself a place in the lab with a computer and a great stereo system, and I’d work all day. For me, it was almost like a vacation.

CG: How did you design the curriculum based on your experience?
After we got enough knowledge on how things worked, we started writing curriculum. The teachers had brainstorming sessions on how we would meet national standards and our topics of curriculum, and how to convert the data to actually usable lessons. We also did a daily group blog — everybody had a day, and there were all these different perspectives. And I created an [online lesson called a] WebQuest.

CG: What was the WebQuest?
It focused on the ship’s “Leg 171,” where they solidified the theory of the K/T boundary. My 8th-grade curriculum talks about geological time, so [in the WebQuest] I have the kids take one of four jobs: paleomagneticist, micropaleontologist, sedimontologist or geochemist. Then there’s a page that takes you through the lab data, asks you to look through it and collect specific data — for example, high silicon content at the boundary, magnetic resonance for that time period, changes in life forms across the boundary. By the time the kids come together, they should have an idea of what happened. It’s inquiry-based, and that’s what everyone wants science to be.

CG: What was the most memorable moment of your trip?
The people were so exceptional. It was wonderful doing the science, but when you’re with a group of people who were as psyched about teaching as I am, and who are so motivated and bright — that’s like plugging into a huge battery. I was just so overwhelmed with it. And the first time I saw all the microscopic creatures, the diatoms, the thin sections — they’re beautiful. I was there all night; I couldn’t get enough. They let us make sample slides, and I came out of there with this beautiful set of microscopic skeletons of all the animals — silica- and calcium-based — that we found during two different samplings. For me, one of the really cool things is, if I had thought about it, and really known about it when I was in high school and college, this is what I would have done.

With the success of the School of Rock’s pilot expedition, JOI Learning and IODP now plan to organize the next session some time after current renovations to the JOIDES Resolution are completed, and the vessel returns to drilling in 2007.

Carolyn Gramling

School of Rock: An Ocean-going Research Expedition for Earth and Ocean Science Teachers
"25 Years of Mass Extinctions and Impacts," Geotimes, February 2005

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