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Partnership brings hands-on, at-sea marine science research to middle and high school students
A Roosevelt Middle student works with FIU scientists Erin Spencer, Laura García Barcia and Candace Fields to collect a tissue sample from a lemon shark. Credit: Kevin Davidson/ANGARI Foundation

Partnership brings hands-on, at-sea marine science research to middle and high school students

June 27, 2022 at 9:51am

In the distance, a thin triangular shape sliced through the surface of the sea.

From aboard ANGARI — a 65-foot yacht converted into a research vessel — a group of Roosevelt Middle School students watched it circle a sun-faded red buoy. As they approached, they saw it was most certainly a fin, attached to a — “shark!” the students yelled.

It was what the students had been waiting for. That shark would be the first of two hammerheads, along with two lemon sharks and one grumpy looking goliath grouper, they'd encounter that day. 

School fieldtrips might include seeing these types of animals, but usually only glimpsed behind glass at an aquarium, not from a boat off the coast of Palm Beach, Fla. But, these middle schoolers and science teacher Eusebius Williams were on a fieldtrip like no other. Through a unique partnership between FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education and the ANGARI Foundation, called Coastal Ocean Explorers, they were getting real-world experience in marine science research.


Many of the students had never stepped foot on a boat before, let alone assisted scientists with actual research. It was a day of many firsts.  

The middle schoolers observed, learned and worked side-by-side with the FIU team. They helped bait the unique circle hooks that are designed to reduce stress and strain on the sharks. They prepared and deployed the drum lines that are designed to safely catch sharks. Every 45 minutes, they checked those drum lines — a strenuous task that requires hauling up hundreds of feet of line.

The moment a shark emerged, all the hard work and waiting was worth it. Safely sandwiched between the researchers, one of the students would help collect measurements, samples and attach special tags that collect critical data on the sharks’ movements.

“My experience working with scientists was wonderful,” said Roosevelt Middle School student Takikia Pierce. “I never worked with real scientists before. I think the best part of the trip was tagging the hammerhead shark.”

Shark tagging aside, the FIU-ANGARI partnership gives middle and high school students the chance to see what a career in science can actually be like.

Williams, who teaches 7th and 8th grade advanced science, says one of his primary goals is to connect classroom lessons to the world outside the classroom. He knows that when material doesn’t seem relevant to students, they lose interest.

Take the scientific method, for example. The heart of science, it guides the research process. In a textbook, it can look like a static list of instructions. But the creative thinking and ingenuity that goes on, from hypothesis to findings, isn’t always seen or understood.

Being at sea with the FIU researchers helped bring the concept to life. The students also gained something else — “a new perspective of the beauty of our Florida coastline and natural resources,” according to Williams.


Laura García Barcia — an FIU Ph.D. candidate in both the Predator Ecology and Conversation lab and the Heithaus lab — helped bring the partnership to fruition.

For over a year, she worked with FIU Assistant Director Outreach Education Nick Ogle, along ANGARI Foundation President Angela Rosenberg and Foundation Director of Science Education & Advancement Amanda Waite to get everything greenlit and ready. García Barcia poured her heart into it, even as she was working to finish her dissertation.

“I knew that even if I was going to do it for a short time, as long as we could guarantee it was going to happen in the long term, it was worth it to go a little crazy for a few semesters,” García Barcia said. “I was always going to do this, because ANGARI is an organization I really click with, and I think the job they do is amazing, both in and out of the water.”

The ANGARI Foundation was created in 2016 by Angela Rosenberg and her sister, Kari, to bridge the gap between science, research, education and the public. They spent months searching for the perfect vessel to be the hub for research, with plenty of space to host groups of scientists, teachers and students. They found the Cassandra Jade. With some renovations, the living room became the lab. Indoor and outdoor workspaces were added. New state-of-the-art technology and equipment was installed. The final touch — a new name. ANGARI, a combination of Angela and Kari.

“We're excited to be working with FIU faculty and grad students who share the same mission and values of ANGARI Foundation — to demonstrate the importance of our oceans and share marine science research through hands-on experiences and education,” Angela Rosenberg said.


Since the day García Barcia first came to FIU as an undergraduate study abroad student from Spain, she’s managed to balance everything that matters to her as a young scientist — research and internship opportunities, mentoring undergraduate students, science communication and community outreach. Not surprisingly, all of this is in the FIU-ANGARI partnership.

The keystone of the partnership is a paid research assistantship for an FIU graduate student — a role responsible for overseeing and managing the Coastal Ocean Explorers: Sharks program, as well as assisting with other community outreach opportunities. Currently, it’s held by García Barcia. In the fall, it will transfer to fellow Ph.D. candidate Erin Spencer. Other Ph.D. students make up the crew of scientists on the expeditions.

In addition to their FIU education, these scientists receive some of the best training available. Every year, any FIU graduate student who works with sharks must attend a mandatory shark handling workshop, created by FIU Associate Professor and Marine Biologist Yannis Papastamatiou.

The workshop is now embedded within the partnership and a portion of the training is held aboard ANGARI. The result is a strong, tightly bonded team that can seamlessly work up a shark and collect valuable data — with both the crew’s safety and shark’s safety in mind.

The data collected also benefits FIU graduate research. So far, samples have helped a part of García Barcia’s dissertation examining mercury levels in bull sharks, Spencer’s research using tags to understand the movements of critically endangered great hammerheads, as well as Jessica Quinlan’s research on secondary fins.

Additional samples are being taken and added to an inventory other students can access for their own research.


The partnership also benefits undergraduates — something García Barcia has always been passionate about. She’s mentored several undergraduate students over the years. It’s her way to give back. After all, it was as an undergraduate where García Barcia volunteered in the Heithaus lab and realized her desire to work in ecotoxicology.

García Barcia wants other undergraduates to get this type of research experience, so the goal is for at least two FIU undergraduates to help with the program throughout the academic year.

FIU freshman Sophia Hemsi, who is majoring in marine biology and interested in doing shark research, was one of the first undergraduates to join the expeditions.

“Opportunities like this to get out into the field under the mentorship of such an experienced, passionate team and gain hands-on experience have been some of the most impactful moments of my life,” Hemsi said. “Everyone on the team went out of their way to show me the realities of continuing on their career path, which helped solidify my resolve to continue towards pursuing research, a Ph.D., and a career in marine ecology.”


García Barcia brought a lot of moving parts together in a short amount of time. Yet, it’s still the early phases of partnership, she says, almost as a reminder to herself as much as a promise of what’s to come.

The long-term goal is to find enough sponsors and donors to expand the program, especially schools supporting lower income students.

In the meantime, other ideas are in the works. One involves bringing fieldwork to the classroom. García Barcia and Spencer plan to develop curriculum, based on their research, which will be a part of Mission Inspire — an educational toolkit created by the Education Outreach team in FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education.

If the students’ experiences are any indication, though, García Barcia has helped shape a program that can be life-changing in countless ways.

Chrystina Proby, one of the Roosevelt Middle School students, said she loved every minute of working with the scientists — and, of course, seeing the sharks. That day on the water stayed in her mind, leading to a deeper questioning about the planet and her place in it.

“The experience made me wonder more about ocean life — and our impact on the oceans,” Proby said.

For more information about the Coastal Ocean Explorers: Sharks education program, please click here