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Diving into the Classroom

2013 March 15

By Sean Sheldrake

Bona fide “cool” job: an EPA diver maps the location of a drum found on a dive survey.

My previous blog posts have featured how EPA diving scientists support cleanups in the nation’s waterways.  In this post, I cover one of my favorite work experiences I do “top side,” namely, talking about my scientific diving experiences in the classroom.

I have found that being a professional diver is a bona fide “cool” job. Not only does this make sharing my work with students fun, but is a great opportunity to energize kids about math and science and illustrate how we can all take action to help protect the environment.

Raise your hand…

I like to start out by taking questions from the students. Often, one of the first is: “what’s the ‘scariest’ thing you’ve encountered underwater.  “Sharks?”  No, but I was pretty scared during my first Alaska dive surrounded by hundreds of sharks—so many they were getting stuck in the crooks of my arms while I attempted to take photos.  “Eels?” No, in fact I actually find wolf eels pretty cute, though one did come out of its den and chase me on one memorable dive!

I almost always get surprised, quizzical looks when I reveal the real answer: “a pipe discharging really mysterious stuff.”   I explain how real harm can be done to the diver and the ecosystem if harmful chemicals, bacteria, viruses, and alike are discharged into our lakes, streams, and oceans.

The other “scariest” thing I’ve seen: stormwater runoff!

Contaminants—used motor oil, metals, pet waste, too much lawn fertilizer, cigarette butts, etc.—that get swept up by  stormwater can be very harmful to water bodies, unless we each work hard to  keep those things where they belong.  Fixing car leaks, recycling and composting, cleaning up after our pets, following the instructions on lawn fertilizers, and other daily actions are all things we can do to make a big difference in what washes off the street and goes down the storm drain, where it can eventually cause major damage downstream.  It all adds up.

“Does math really have any use?”

And speaking of “adding up,” the other major point I like to make in the classroom is dispelling the myth that math and science are some kind of torture. They are critical subjects to some of the coolest jobs out there (such as scientific diving)! After all, multiplication gets exciting when I say that if I don’t know my multiplication tables me and my dive buddy could miscalculate our dive plan and get hurt.  Safe diving science requires math! (EPA has lesson plans for oodles of environment topics that help bring science and math to life.)

Parting thoughts

I always try to leave the students with the knowledge that there are a million things each of us can do to help the environment!  Well, okay, maybe hundreds of ideas growing by the day.  The most important aspect is to take personal action.

If we all take steps to help our planet it will really add up; for my part maybe that storm drain (yikes!) won’t cause the hairs to stand up on the back of my neck anymore.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the Author: Sean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  Sean Sheldrake serves on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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