Young students get hands-on time with marine life at New College

SARASOTA -- The decibel level in the lab at New College of Florida was unusually high on Friday.

It was, as instructor Sandra Gilchrist put it, "controlled chaos."

A total of 47 middle and high school students from Sarasota and Manatee county schools are at the New College marine biology labs this week and next, to get hands-on experience with everything from brine shrimp to algae and anemones.

Students flitted from one experiment to another, checking on the progress of ant lion diggings -- one side of the dirt had been sprayed with an oil, while the other side was left alone -- and setting up a new experiment that will take shape this weekend. Eyes peered into microscopes and small hands picked up petri dishes to get a closer look.

Every so often, Gilchrist would call out instructions and the dull roar would soften, only to pick immediately back up, sometimes before Gilchrist had stopped speaking.

On Friday, students set up two tests tubes that looked exactly the same, except for the markings on the outside. A name and a date scribbled on the outside with a marker was a common feature. But one tube had an "N" for normal; the other, "F" for fertilizer.

Both tubes contained

sea water and algae. One test tube also contained fertilizer. By Monday, the 47 students enrolled in this summer's PUSH/SUCCESS program will be able to see some of the harmful effects fertilizer runoff can have on the bay.

"It'll cause the algae to grow," said Gilchrist, a biology professor at the school who helps run the marine science labs on campus. "This shows them how the health of the bay relates to their own health."

The annual program, supported by grants, brings in students who are underrepresented in the science field and often come from low-income families to learn about marine biology and marine science.

"This is the time they need to be excited about science," Gilchrist said. "We lose so many of them at this age."

The program is free, but students must fill out an application and be recommended by a teacher.

"They don't have to be the best student," Gilchrist said. "They just have to want to learn."

Gilchrist kept an eye on the students, calling out instructions and keeping the group moving forward before it was time to break for lunch.

"It sounded fun," said 11-year-old Kani Washington, a Bradenton resident who will enter sixth grade at Johnson Middle School in the fall.

"I wanted to learn something," said Eaton Bell Jr., a 13-year-old Palmetto resident who will enter eighth grade at Manatee School for The Arts in the fall.

At the end of the program, the students participate in a graduation ceremony, where they present what they've learned to parents and other community members.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.