Brine shrimp
Dec 26th, 2011 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.


My children and I had an exciting visit to the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium today. The girls enjoyed the seal feeding, shark tank, jellyfish tank (on of my personal favorites), and, of course, the festival of lights – lighthouse exhibit. However, I was drawn to the jellyfish work room. The room is equipped with a number of customized gear made of PVC pipes, customized tanks, and pump systems. I was drawn to a 5-gallon blue Crystal Rock water cooler bottle that was modified with a cut-off top and a huge air stone set upon a PVC structure/table. This “tank” was growing brine shrimp, sometimes in the common vernacular referred to as sea monkeys. These small macroscopic shrimp are used as planktonic food for the jellies.

I was excited to see this set up, because about 10 years ago when I was teaching marine biology, I had a similar setup in my classroom. The students and I used to construct devices and strategize ways to take care of our 55-gallon tanks. It was experiential learning at its best. We did our regular “curricular” things in that semester class, but my fondest memories were working side-by-side with the students finding ways to make our catches from Long Island Sound – our crabs, snails, mummichog fish, mussels, clams, and even the red beard sponge come alive in our classroom environment.

What was important was that we created the environment and made the tools to keep it running. Sure, we had pre-purchased some materials, but the art of the process was determining how we could build devices that made it our own.

The Festival of Lights
Nov 27th, 2011 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

TMA Lighthouses, a set on Flickr.

My daughters and I built a lighthouse for The Maritime Aquarium’s Festival of Lights. It is amazing to see the talents of the local artists. The lights are on display until mid January. If you go, vote for #15!  Feel free to click on the link above to view the set and see the full pictures!

Now to some thoughts on education, creativity, and expertise .  .  .

I’ve heard of the lighthouse competition before, and thought it might be an exciting project for my daughters and I to participate.  We love the water and lighthouses and the kids have been to the aquarium. (One of the perks of the contest was a year-long membership to the aquarium.) There were several pictures of “past winners” both on the aquarium’s website and in the promotional flyer.   We elected to build one of our favorites: the Black Rock Lighthouse on Fayerweather Island in Bridgeport.  I decided we would do a scale model and we were pretty precise with measurements, angles, colors, dimensions, and the lot.  It was a challenge to decide what materials to use, how to best represent the light, and how to incorporate all of the subtle details.  We did make a few minor changes, mainly to the top portion of the light due to our inability to make certain objects with the confines of the materials we used.  Nonetheless, if you look at a picture and look at our model, it looks extremely similar. Our model is clean, representative, and majestic.

What I learned, from looking at the other models, is that ours doesn’t really tell a story.  Some of the other lights have an underlying story in their model – a scene, an imaginary sense of wonder, a connection to the viewer.  I can make a connection to those lights on an emotional level – I am drawn in to explore the story and examine its details.  This speaks to the idea of creativity and expertise.  With experience, levels of expertise develop more, and, in turn, increase the creative potential of the artist (or insert other domain here). My children and I have already begun brainstorming ideas for “next year.”  No doubt, our experience building our own model coupled with opportunities  to view other high quality work has inspired us, but also provided us with relevant background knowledge that will make us better producers on the next go-around.

We can’t underestimate the importance of giving students opportunities to produce – whether it be writing, science, music, or whatever . . . When they are producers, they increase their creative potential because they add to their experience and that expertise makes their work more innovative, higher quality, and more imaginative.

Green Light Academy means AUTHENTIC
Dec 23rd, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

This past summer I was the program director for the Green Light Academy.  Here’s a description from the website:

A Beacon of Hope
Green Light Academy is one of many educational and cultural programs offered by Beacon Preservation, Inc. a nonprofit organization designed to promote environmental conservation, sustainable energy options, and “green collar” skills training through lighthouse preservation. Green Light Academy is made possible through a grant from the Connecticut State Department of Education, the 1772 Foundation,  and the generous support of private donors. For 2010, GLA is open to public high school students from Bridgeport, New Haven, Norwalk, Stratford, Fairfield, and Oxford.

The Green Light Academy (GLA) Is a four-week summer residential program for high school students (grades 10-12) that takes place on the college campus of Western State University In Danbury, Connecticut from Sunday, June 27th through Friday July 23rd, 2010. GLA students live In university housing, dine In the Westside Student Center, use WCSU’s classrooms,  conduct research in the libraries and computer labs, conduct experiments In the laboratories of WestConn’s new state-of-the-art Science Building, explore the Ives Nature Center, and enjoy the many playing fields, gymnasiums, and recreational facilities on both the midtown and westside campuses. Our faculty and guest speakers are experienced professors and certified teachers committed to engaging the learner through hands-on skill-buildling exercises. We believe that academic achievement Improves when students develop a new Interest and appreciation for science, technology, and sustainable energy by doing real-world “applied learning” lessons and hands-on activities.

Here is a great video summarizing our month-long program.  Images sometimes capture a program’s essence so much more effectively than words can . . .

A Waterfall as an Authentic Learning Environment
Mar 19th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Exposure is key to a child’s development.  When children have the opportunity to experience the natural world authentically, we allow greater capacity for the growth of their minds:  we expand their ability to problem find, problem solve, by being creative, critical thinkers.  Stemming from the monsoon-like nor’easter rain we experienced this past weekend, my daughters and I made a short detour home to go check out the Pootatuck River.  We experienced the shear strength of the flowing water over two of the constructed waterfalls that used to provide hydroelectric power to a some factories.  We documented our experience with photo, writing, drawing, and sound.  Our products?  Below:

The girls at the waterfall

The girls at the waterfall


The second waterfall

The second waterfall

Anna's (7) drawing of the waterfall

Anna's (7) drawing of the waterfall

Anna writes about the waterfall

Anna writes about the waterfall

Maggie's (5) drawing of the waterfall.  What monsters are living below the surface?

Maggie's (5) drawing of the waterfall. What monsters are living below the surface?

Maggie writes about the waterfall

Maggie writes about the waterfall

We also did a short audio recording of the amazing sound of the waterfall.  My voice recorder didn’t intially capture the deep, grand sound of the water, so I used audacity to modify the file.  Click on the icon to hear it:
Asking questions of nature
Sep 21st, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from the town of Stratford

from the town of Stratford

I often think back to Ralph Yulo’s important statement “Put your questions to nature,” when I engage students in field experiences. Last Thursday, I took my graduate science methods students to Great Meadows Marsh in Stratford. This has long been a favorite site for me because it is such a powerful example of the beauty and grandeur of nature and the impact of human activity.

Great Meadows sits on Long Island Sound to the south (Long Beach) and is surrounded by the Sikorsky Airport, Bridgeport to the west, and Lordship to the east. The drive into the area takes you right through the middle of the marsh, and you immediately gain a sense of the vastness of the area in comparison to the extensive development that surrounds it.

What I like best about the marsh is the enormity of the topics that can be discussed. I bring several activities for students to complete including:

  • water chemistry (dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, salinity, etc.)
  • bait fishing (using small minnow traps)
  • finding interesting things.

I’ve described a meaningful marsh experience in a paper written for the Connecticut Journal of Science Education here.

What I always find to be the most powerful part of the experience, however, is the discussions that ensue.  I love to talk about edible marsh plants and often offer a sample of rose hip jelly, a taste of beach rose flowers or glasswort.  Jumping on an area of marsh always provides a powerful example of how absorbent and sponge-like the area is.  And the cautious eye of the student (or me) can often finding interesting science concepts embedded in the sand or the mud.

I think the real power in a successful trip stems from creating an environment that is conducive to questioning.  That’s where real inquiry IS!  I can provide structured activities for the students, but I think the real learning comes from their enthusiasm and excitement from wanting to learn something new about the world.  Those questions (both from them and me) are the intangibles of good teaching and learning. 

In essence, what’s not planned is as important as what IS planned. Sure there’s a bit of finese and experience required, but I think the end results are so powerful.

Daytona Beach and multiple intelligences
Jan 2nd, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

My family and I have been enjoying a respite in Daytona Beach and I have had a chance to enjoy some downtime. This downtime is so important to the creative mind, because it offers opportunities to develop thoughts without the pressures and confines of the traditional work schedule.  I’ve often walked up and down the beach, with family, spouse, children, and alone just to admire nature’s presence.  Of course, if you look west, there is a plethora of high-rise buildings and extensive development.  But, walking on the sand and facing east, leaves an unadulterated view of the beauty and grandeur of Mother Nature in one of my favorite forms:  the ocean. 

Daytona Beach has a fairly active surf and the sand on the beach is peculiarly clean, without the too often found litter, flotsam, and jetsam that unfortunately crowd the pathway of a nature walker.  I am surprised how flat the beach is and how few shells are mingled within the sand.  Nonetheless, the intense, crashing, powerful sounds of the waves are soothing and relaxing. 

As you look south, down the beach, there is only one obstruction in the water, and that is the Main Street pier.  The peer stretches perpendicular to the beach, about the length of a football field.  There is a building in the middle of it, and is uncrowded with only a few fishermen seeking a catch.  I had walked past the pier, both over and under, several times, but on a recent trip, I noticed something on the sand.  The pier has created an unnatural obstruction in the sand, and has caused it to pool around the piers.  This situation often occurs when human interference, particularly in the form of jetties or groins are installed to stop beach erosion.  However, beaches move, whether we like it or not, and attempts to stabilize them nearly always make things worse. 

I had originally learned about beach movement in a graduate coastal ecology class I took with George McManus , a fabulous marine biology professor at UConn-Avery Point.   A video “The Beaches are Moving,” with Dr. Orrin Pikey discusses the phenomenon.  After seeing the video, and follow up reading that I’ve done, I am constantly amazed that human-imposed techniques are used to interfere with nature’s might.  If you’ve ever seen “Deadliest Catch,” you know that the ocean is a powerful force and a human-built structure really has no chance against the awesome power of the sea. 

So, as a scientist, I thought it was cool that I had the chance to subtly observe a human-nature interaction, but as an educator, it has me thinking about other things . . .

Many professional development opportunities ask teachers to think about their students from a “Multiple Intelligencesperspective.  The list of intelligences, currently at eight is:

  • Bodily-Kinesthetic
  • Interpersonal
  • Verbal-linguistic
  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Naturalistic
  • Intrapersonal
  • Visual-Spatial
  • Musical

Some characterize the multiple intelligences concept as a theory, but there has been little-to-no empirical evidence to support that claim.  Ironically (or maybe not so ironically) the conceiver, Howard Gardner, does not want is multiple intelligences concept used as learning theory. 

Some might consider my observation about the pier to be a naturalistic intelligence.  Now for a brief sidebar .  . . In the past, in the Estuary Watch Program, I’ve collaborated with two professors, Dr. Lisa Kaplan from Quinnipiac University, and Dr. Joe Crivello from UConn.  Joe had an amazing ability to observe nature, and know just where to dip his net in a marsh to come up with an amazing catch of grass shrimp.  Lisa, a more contemplative scientist, would often comment how Joe just seemed to have amazing hands – whatever he touched always seemed to work for him whether in the field or in his laboratory.

The more I think about this “naturalistic” intelligence, the more I think, that the naturalist, really just has an excellent visual-spatial acuity.  After all, naturalism, really is just a specific interest, and may not be an intelligence unto itself.   Every time I interact with someone who has clear naturalistic interest and aptitude, always seems to have excellent spatial perspective. 

As educators and researchers, we should be critical of that which does not have clear empirical evidence.  The way we educate children should be based on clear, evidence-based practice.    

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