Innovative class uses sea urchins to spawn learning

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Jan 12,  2009

Vigor High School completes first aquascience course


PRICHARD, Ala. – About 30 students at Vigor High School recently served as caretakers of aquatic animals during the inaugural semester of a hands-on aquascience course.

“The class is a great class,” student Kalyn Richardson said. “I think all students should take it.”

Students raised sea urchins, white shrimp and tilapia in the class. They designed recirculation systems, checked and maintained water quality, including salinity and temperature, fed the animals and used science in ways they had only read about in books. 
Troy Latham teaches the class, which is part of the school’s Coastal Program that offers higher-level math and science courses not available at some schools. Students will receive a special diploma when they complete the program, which requires six science and math courses instead of the four that normally are required.

The use of sea urchins in the aquascience program is rather unique, said P.J. Waters, extension specialist with Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium (MASGC) and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Waters offers support to about 10 high-school aquascience programs in Alabama.

“Sea urchins are great when it comes to embryology,” Latham said.

To determine the aquatic animal’s sex, students inject them with potassium chloride to see if they expel eggs or sperm, he said. Then, they fertilize eggs under a microscope and watch the cellular divisions that occur.

Sea urchins became part of the Vigor High program through University of Alabama at Birmingham Scientist Stephen Watts, who studies sea urchins and has developed food to sustain them in aquaculture. Watts, who received funding for some of his research from MASGC, supplies sea urchins and the feed for the program.

The collaboration began about two years ago when Latham read about Watts’ research in the MASGC’s newsletter, “Sea Briefs.”

“I made contact with him, and we kinda went from there,” Latham said.

The use of sea urchins and Watts’ feed in a high-school classroom is an example of how MASGC-funded scientists apply their findings outside their laboratories.

“This is the type of outreach that MASGC wants to see from all scientists who receive funding through our program,” LaDon Swann, director of MASGC, said.

The teachers and administrators at Vigor High have impressed Watts.

“They have worked hard and spent a great deal of time, and often their own money, to provide an innovative teaching experience for their students,” he said. “We would like to see other schools work with the sea urchins as they represent a unique opportunity to study fundamental processes in animal development.”

Vigor High students seem to appreciate that opportunity.

Richardson, who wants to study pharmacy after high school, said the aquascience class has given her more experience in the sciences.

“In the other science classes, we sit in the class and do bookwork,” she said.

Cleaning tanks, growing fish and shrimp, learning the best water temperature for growth and how many animals can be in a tank at a time, feeding sea urchins and determining which ones were male and female through spawning were some of the highlights of the class, she said.

When student Michael Davis Jr. talks about his aquascience experience, he focuses on something other than science.

“It was great practice for me for the future,” he said. “I did a little plumbing, put together tanks and tried to design a filter system for our project in the class.”

In the future, the school likely will offer additional classes, such as honors zoology, that will incorporate aquaculture, Latham said.

He is optimistic about how students are reacting to the aquascience course.

“It’s fun to see the kids’ faces when they actually see something they read about. You can see the light bulb go on,” he said.

This is the first year that Vigor High implemented the courses in the Coastal Program, Latham said, and they still have some things to learn. 
“Our shrimp didn’t do well this year,” Latham said. “We killed most of them.”

Vigor High School students Jamonica Watts, left, Maurice Adams, Jamia Williams, India Nelson, Jessica Edmond and Calondria Jones gather around a tank during the school’s aquascience class.


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