Taylor Shedd is studying the mating habits of humpback whales thanks to a unique class making a splash at Columbus East High School.
For more than a year, the 19-year-old has been majoring in marine biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a institution where students get experience in the field.
Taking the ocean science class at East prepared him for the up-close education.
“Marine biology here is more hands-on than at other colleges,” said Shedd, a 2011 East graduate. “Taking that high school class got me interested in hands-on learning. It made me love to experience things.”
East’s ocean science course, now in its fourth year for juniors and seniors, is the only full class devoted to oceanic sciences anywhere among public schools in Indiana, according to local school officials.
The only reason East offers it at all in a Midwestern state far from an ocean is the passion of its instructor, Mike Walls, and the course’s inclusion and reinforcement of all four major sciences: physics, chemistry, biology and earth sciences.
Walls, 52, grew up in Columbus and graduated from East in 1979. He said he taught biology, marine biology and ecology in St. Petersburg, Fla., before returning home to Indiana.
He started East’s ocean science class after finding that students there were curious about aquatic life, their habitats and the ocean’s global influence.
He said students were and continue to be surprised by the reality that water, which covers 70 percent of the world’s surface, affects weather on dry land all over the globe. It affects everything from rainfall quantities to temperature, directly affecting farmers and the prices we pay for their goods.
Walls sold that to his superiors as one reason to add ocean science among East’s credited science curriculum. He also sold them on his enthusiasm as a teacher, and on the multiple scientific disciplines the class would encompass.
The course is for only East juniors and seniors. The course’s 17 students are divided among two classes. Nothing similar is offered at Columbus North High School, although Walls said a North student probably could get in if he or she wanted.
The class’ first semester focus on oceanography, which includes the chemical properties of water, how the oceans were formed and how the oceans affect life outside of it. Its second semester deals with marine biology, which includes fish, fungi, choral reefs and bacteria.
“It’s a challenging course, but it’s also the coolest science class ever,” he said. “It’s been my passion for 20 years.”
Aquariums line the wall of the lab on the second floor of the high school. Students routinely check and adjust salinity, nitrate levels and other water conditions that can mean the difference between a living fish and a dead one.
But the lessons in the class go much deeper. There’s microorganisms to study. Shifting tectonic plates to understand. And so much else that influences weather and everyday life — even in Indiana.
Students learned about water pressure during a recent, in-building field trip to East’s swimming pool. Though equipped with a snorkel, they found the pressure of the water even a few feet down prevented them from breathing.
The rigorous curriculum has captured the imaginations of students who love what it offers.
“I expected it to be a lot easier,” said Courtney Grider, a junior who thought she’d just be learning to train dolphins. “But I’m learning more in this class than a lot of others. I wish they’d offer a Level 2 class so I could keep it going.”
She plans to study marine biology in college.
Jacob Bishop, also a junior, said he knew ocean science would be tough when he signed up. What has been especially challenging, he said, has been establishing a healthy saltwater aquarium, which also has been the most rewarding given his fishes’ health.
Although most students who take the class plan to pursue jobs in other fields, they gain an appreciation for ocean sciences.
Sara Rockwell, a junior, said she plans to major in nursing at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus/Franklin. However, she said she might try scuba diving and starting a saltwater aquarium at home as a hobby.
Brad Gayman, also a junior, said he wouldn’t have signed up for ocean science at all if not for an astronomy class that was canceled due to having too few registrations.
He said he has enjoyed marine biology so much that he briefly considered pursuing it as a career. However, he plans now to study business at Ball State University in Muncie.
Aaron Lynott, chairman of East’s science department, said the class’ hands-on approach keeps students coming back.
They work in the lab most days of the week.
Each year they take a field trip to the Florida Keys for snorkeling and to learn about aquatic life, earth dynamics and sometimes to collect plant life, when it’s allowed.
“I think we have something pretty special,” Lynott said.