Story Time with Whale Acoustics

First, let me apologize for being a little late with this post.  I generally post the second Friday of every month; It’s Tuesday. One of the reasons I’m late is because I flew back to my hometown in Birmingham, Alabama as an invited teacher at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School.  I had the privilege of running three lessons on whale communication for students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade.  Admittedly they kept me on my toes! Spending time with children is exciting and inspiring. We did a number of activities to demonstrate how marine mammals use sound to communicate. Students were given a small shaker containing one of four materials (hazelnuts, tacks, aduki beans, or rice) and they had to use their ears alone to find their “pods”.  We had fin whales, humpback whales, killer whales, and beluga whales.  Each pod was then given a ribbon the length of their whale to stretch out across the activity room.  Even I was impressed with how big a fin whale really is!

For the older groups we talked about the relationship between size and pitch (frequency), learned how to read spectrograms, and I introduced the concept of masking and noise pollution by playing a series of whale calls and adding vessel noise.  For the kindergartners and first graders, however, it seemed more appropriate to introduce the concept of sound in the ocean with a story.  I re-purposed a true story about a killer whale from Puget Sound named Springer who was separated from, and later reunited with her pod.  In real life recordings were made of Springer’s vocalizations to help identify which pod she belonged to.  In the story below, Springer uses her family whistle to try and re-connect, and she meets a number of other whales along the way. On each page I was able to play recordings of the animals in the pictures, so my young students could hear the actual voices of the animals. Enjoy!

The Student is the Teacher

Classes have started again here at OSU.  I know this is old news for those east coast universities that start classes in late August or early September, but here in Ye Olde Oregon fall starts late… so school starts late.  As a PhD student I’m no longer required to take classes at the university, and having just pushed the paperwork through on our National Park Service Grant I will soon be exclusively a GRA (graduate research assistant) and will no longer be required to teach courses either.  For now, however, I am both student and teacher — taking classes and teaching them.

FW255 student James tests out the directional microphone during a playback study at Finley Wildlife Refuge.

I love teaching.  Rare for many researchers I know, but for me – true.  I find it helps me to synthesize my thoughts, to approach science creatively and simply, and to consistently reference back to the basics.  In my tenure as a graduate student at OSU I’ve been privileged to both TA and instruct classes in basic biology, ecology, intro to anatomy, physiology and disease, marine biology, marine mammal science, marine habitats, and (my all time favorite) field sampling.  FW255 — field sampling — is a required course for all of our Fisheries and Wildlife undergraduate students; I’ve been a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) under the brilliant and compassionate guidance of biological oceanographer and community ecologist Dr. Doug Reese for four quarters.  The course gives students the opportunity (under the instructors’ guidance) to design and execute field studies at the Finley Wildlife Refuge.  Courses range from comparing predator habitat use, to investigating the impacts of beaver dams on water clarity, to chronicling avian community structure.  I know. Our students are impressive, creative, young minds.

When your classroom looks like this teaching is heavenly.

When your classroom looks like this… teaching is heavenly

For my part I see participating in this course as an opportunity to introduce undergraduate students to acoustic ecology.  In my tenure I’ve guided students through studies that seek to aquatically detect amphibian species, investigate the impact of diel vs. nocturnal raptors on songbird communities, and studies that use acoustics (playbacks and recordings in this case) to test for territorial responses of red-winged blackbirds to encroaching yellow-headed blackbirds. Currently we’re starting up two playback studies; one study uses acoustic playbacks to investigate the impact of raptors on waterfowl, the other which will asses behavioral responses of elk to breeding calls (assuming we can find the elk — backup plan includes tracking elk and using trail cams.  No student left behind here).

While there’s a lot to love about teaching this class (I spend two days a week hiking through a wildlife refuge looking for animals, I can pay my rent each month), there are a few things that really strike me as I start up my fourth quarter interacting with our students in the field.  First, I have a lot to learn.  Whenever I start to feel like I understand something in its entirety, be it about ecology or about bioacoustics, a student asks me a question I don’t know the answer to.  I then go home, look it up, and learn something for the both of us.  It is simultaneously refreshing, inspiring, and humbling.  Good qualities for any PhD student to embody.

Second, teaching is valuable.  While I believe that my research has, and will continue to have an impact of the world around me, when I teach I can see the impact.  My students start the quarter not knowing how to do something (“What is a quadrat?”), perhaps lacking direction (a.k.a. don’t know how to operate a GPS), and are sometimes a little short in the inspiration department (“What study do you think I should do, Michelle?”), but when then leave?  By the time my students hand in their final papers — a full scale research paper, intro, methods, results, & discussions, stats and all — I can see that they have changed (“We used a one square meter quadrat to investigate insect biodiversity between the upland forest and the agricultural lowland riparian zone”). Further, the relationships that I see unfolding in our class between the students and their groups, and the students and Doug and myself, are proof to me that doing science is a powerful tonic for a healthy life.  Not everyone loves teaching, not everyone gets it, but for me (at least for now) it’s nourishing to put big picture impacts into real world perspective.

So yes, I am a teacher.  Yes, I am a student. The teacher is a student & the students are the teachers.

But enough with philosophy (Niki’s really much better at that than I am).  While 99% of the time I love teaching… no one can deny that this is also true.  Cross your fingers and I may just graduate some day.