Students learning through Shipwreck Alley

ALPENA – Alpena High School students have an opportunity to utilize area resources through a unique elective class at the high school. Shipwreck Alley: Shipwrecks, Science, and the Marine Sanctuary, is back for its third installment this month, thanks to instructor John Caplis’ idea to create a hands-on course, with guidance from the staff at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

“It was a learning experience for me, as well as the first group of students,” Caplis said. “The kids really find the sanctuary interesting, but they want to be involved in hands-on learning activities. This is where a strong partnership with NOAA makes a huge difference. They have been instrumental in helping design quality activities and learning experiences for our students, as well as helping me find funding for the class.”

“We have three classes this trimester,” Caplis said. “We have about 100 students taking the class. As a result, we will be exploring some new opportunities.”

The class is an earth science elective in which students learn about geology, meteorology, and environmental issues, along with studies in history, economics, and maritime archaeology.

“Geological formations like North Point Reef sink ships and storms like the White Hurricane of 1913 sink ships, so we study the related earth science content,” Caplis said.

Students also will begin working on a book about the sanctuary, with chapters on the strange weather of the Great Lakes, geology, and specific shipwrecks. Future classes will be able to add to their work.

With school funding being very tight, Caplis relies almost completely on grants and donations to pay for the course. Funding has been provided by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative and “a $1,000 donation from a private donor who wanted to support this educational opportunity,” Caplis said. “We were also awarded a $200 cultural grant by the State of Michigan to help pay transportation costs for a field trip.”

“Besser Foundation provided the initial funding. I wrote a grant for things like books, maps, archaeology kits, and snorkeling gear. Without their generous contribution, the class would not be nearly as attractive to students. We couldn’t do field work and hands-on simulations in the pool without this equipment,” Caplis said.

After preparing in the classroom through lecture and reading the students practice their skills on land, then they take a field trip to Plaza Pool to practice underwater archaeology with sanctuary staff.

“One of the things I like best about this class is that students get to work side by side with professionals who prove that the science and history we ask students to learn have real world applications right here in Alpena,” Caplis said.

This semester, students also will have the opportunity to build remotely operated vehicles, thanks to the Besser Foundation.

“We plan to build three ROVs and then take them out on the glass bottom boat to study a shallow wreck. The sanctuary staff will bring one of their ROVs and some divers to assist,” Caplis said. “If everything goes well, the students will be able to talk to the divers as we explore the wreck site.”

The ROV construction project provides science, technology, engineering, and math learning for the students and will help prepare them for advanced training in these areas.

Students this trimester will also be partnering with the Besser Museum and Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative to collect oral histories from fishermen who worked on the Catherine V. in hopes to preserve their stories and learn more about these men and the health of the fishery. The GLSI funded a $2,000 grant to support this project, and future Shipwreck Alley students may be involved in creating an exhibit for this vessel, which is currently being stored behind the museum.

“I have found that students are most excited about learning when it is interesting or it matters to them,” Caplis said. “Hopefully these projects will inspire my students to explore careers in science, or some field they haven’t considered before. I have learned so much throughout this experience, and I hope they do too.”