How to Drown Your Students

Sometimes the temptation is there. We wanted to study mammals as the final lab in Honors Marine Biology. But I found out that even here in Morocco, it's hard to get ahold of a live dolphin for study. I tried contacting a friend who has been working with longevity studies of small whales. He's found a steady diet of seagull eggs extends their lives dramatically. Unfortunately, where he does research the only location for these eggs is a small island. And the seagulls are ironically endangered, so their rookery is guarded by a pair of lions. And just this last week, in one of his regular forays to get more eggs, he thankfully found the lions asleep, and so snuck past them to gather up the eggs. However, upon returning, he was immediately arrested, for transporting young gulls across sedate lions for immortal porpoises.

So, actual living whales are out. We found a great lab in Laboratory and Field Investigations of Marine Life, which lets you analyze skeletal, skull, and tooth differences in marine mammals and terrestrial mammals, using a combination of pictures, skulls, and artificial skeletons. This is the lab book I've been using all year, and I've been impressed with it's in depth nature and the ability to create labs with limited resources here in the 2/3rds world, although I've found a teacher's guide accompanying it would have helped at times to understand desired answers.

The final part of the lab is looking at mammal diving habits. But again, no sperm whales available. So we did two controls: the first having all four students breath normally over a pan of water, while counting their pulse; the second while having them hold their breath over the pan while counting their pulse. Then I had them plunge their faces into the 25 degrees Celcius water and measure pulse. Predictably, Bobby, who is the head of the swim team at school, could hold his breath the longest and had the lowest pulse while holding his breath. (Though I'm proud to say that my practice for the sport of deep diving allowed me to beat the record of all the students in breath holding duration.) Then all four students did the same thing in 40 degrees Celcius hot water, and then they measured the results by hyperventilating. The final result was four very wet students.

Since we have a limited number of containers to store and capture water in, we'll finish the lab on monday with the water that has been cooling in the fridge. If there's time, as we need to review for finals that day as well, we'll also look at the results of breathing in 25 degrees Celcius water after exercising. Their final assignment will be to analyze all these different results and see how they compare to each other, to learn a bit more how a diving mammal functions.

I have enjoyed this class so much this year. They are some of the brightest students I have ever worked with, and I will miss them very much. Being an Honors class, their grades will bump up 10% at the end of the year automatically, but there really is no need- grades will go from a 93% in a hard course to a 103%, and still be recorded simply as an "A" under our rubric.


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