The Coastal Star

Tots and Teens: Math teacher takes students undersea via technology

Students react to Melissa Norelli during a Skyped lecture.

Norelli as viewed through a hatch in the Florida International University’s Medina Aquarius Reef Base.
Photos provided

By Janis Fontaine

    Melissa Norelli loves math and science.
    The always curious middle school teacher at Unity School in Delray Beach could have had a career as a researcher, doing experiments and analyzing data every day, but, ever since middle school, she always pictured herself as a math teacher up in front of a class.
    She is passionate about teaching, and especially about getting girls ready for careers in math, science, technology and computer science.
    In November, Norelli earned a slot — one of only five teachers chosen nationally — to participate in the Teacher Under the Sea Program at Florida International University’s Medina Aquarius Reef Base 60 feet underwater off the coast of Islamorada in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The program ran for eight days in November and Norelli would be able to share the experience with her students. They loved the idea.
    This was the first time teachers were invited to this operating undersea laboratory. Scientists are able to explore an ecosystem that is by nature very difficult to study.
    At Aquarius, researchers go beyond conventional limitations and live beneath the water to conduct research as saturated divers (those who have reached their maximum loads of nitrogen, allowing them to remain under water longer).
    The 28-year-old Boca Raton resident immersed herself in the experience, diving as part of a team to switch out GoPro cameras and algae tiles for the current experiment: a study of the ecology of fear. The scientists want to know if algae fed differently in the presence of the sea’s top predators — in this case, sharks.
    As part of the program, Norelli Skyped with her students at Unity and with a classroom of students in Peru, which was one of the best parts of the experience. “The kids were so excited, and had so many questions,” Norelli said.  
    And it revealed the difference between a teacher who requires students to learn and one who inspires students to learn.
    She may have been away from school, but this trip was no vacation. After working underwater in conditions suited to attracting apex predators, processing and analyzing data, and Skyping with students, Norelli followed a quick dinner with more data processing. Somehow she also found time to write an enthusiastic and detailed blog about her day.
    Of the Skyping, in her journal she wrote: “The highlight of my day was seeing my students and being able to bring them to the bottom of the ocean with me.” The best part for them, the students said, was getting to go along on an adventure, almost as if they, too, were scientists on an important research project.
    Norelli has already been invited back to the Reef Base later this year, and she plans to bring her sixth-grade students down for a tour of the land base and for a lesson in coral conservation from the Coral Restoration Foundation.
    But what Norelli and the students are really excited about is the class’ overnight trip to Seacamp later this year.
    Seacamp is a year-round, nonprofit marine science camp and educational facility on Big Pine Key in the Keys, in the heart of the coral reefs. The camp combines science lessons and water sports, including scuba, kayaking, sailing, windsurfing and fishing.
    “It’s great to see the kids in their element,” Norelli said. Ultimately, it’s still about what they learn.”
Whenever a parent or student asks for advice on how to improve in school, Norelli says, she gives the same answer: “People think it’s funny that I say this because I’m a math teacher, but the best thing you can do is read more.”

Places to study science

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center and Environmental Complex, 1801 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton. Info: 544-8615
    Since 1984, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center has welcomed visitors who want to know more about the flora and fauna that thrive in Gumbo Limbo’s 20 acres of protected barrier island.  More than 100,000 visit each year.
    Much of the focus remains on the preservation of the natural environment and wildlife resources, and several courses are offered each month focusing on science and conservation of the unique ecosystem. Classes include:
    • Seining the Lagoon — Wade in the Intracoastal Waterway to catch, examine (and release) fish, shrimp and crabs, using handheld dip nets and large seine nets. Age 10 and older. $7 members, $10 nonmembers. Reservations required.
    • Beach Treasures — Sea beans, coral, shells, sea glass. Gather up what the sea has left behind to learn about marine life. For all ages. $5 members, $8 nonmembers. Reservations required.  
    • A Walk On The Ashley Trail — A quarter-mile naturalist guide-led walk through a butterfly garden, coastal hammock and mangroves, to a sandy beach, observing flora and fauna. All ages. Free.

The Children’s Science Explorium, Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton. A hands-on science center designed for children ages 5 to 12. Find interactive exhibits, science programs and a permanent science exhibit.  Info: 347-3912;
    • Saturdays the Explorium offers  science stories for ages 5 and older at 11:30 a.m. and once a month it hosts weekend demos for ages 7 and older. These free 30-minute, interactive demonstrations engage kids’ curiosity. This month: 3:30 p.m. Feb. 13-14.
    • The Explorium is hosting a traveling exhibition, “From Here to There,” that focuses on how things get moved from one place to another. Kids will learn about the law of movement: They can feel the friction, grapple with gravity, float in the air on a hovercraft chair and navigate a boat through a canal lock system. On display through May.

Bright & Smart Robotics, Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton. Info: 954-816-3346; email
    This organization treats learning engineering concepts as fun challenges, combining hands-on robot building with computer programming (or coding to your kid) and teamwork. Kids 6 to 14 years old can benefit regardless of their cognitive skill levels.

The Schoolhouse Children’s Museum & Learning Center, 129 E. Ocean Ave., Boynton Beach. Info: 742-6780;
    • On the second floor of the museum, older children will find some science-related role-playing opportunities. In the Doctor’s Office, your child can help the doctor take an X-ray and check for a heartbeat, and learn about medicine by exploring props. In Mangrove Manor, your scientist can study the flora and fauna of this unique Florida habitat. Kids have to climb, crawl and slide to find the animals.

IMACS, 23172 Sandalfoot Plaza Drive, Boca Raton, and 6200 Linton Blvd., Delray Beach. Info: 470-1178.
    • This enrichment center can tutor your kid, but so can a lot of places. What if your child wants to know more than schools are teaching about computer programming, robotics, bio-medicine, or engineering? These are the skills kids can learn at IMACS — a mastery of mathematics and the ability to apply logic, critical thinking and creative reasoning. High finance, law, venture capitalists, in fact, every job requires problem solving abilities.

South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, 4801 Dreher Trail N., West Palm Beach. Admission: $16.95 adults, $14.95 seniors ages 60 or older, $12.95 for ages 3-12, and free for members and younger than age 3. Info: 832-2026;
    • “Dinosaurs Around the World: The Exhibition” — This traveling exhibit features 13 life-sized roaring, breathing dinosaurs that reveal the amazing diversity that existed during the age of the dinosaurs, from the fierce plains of Africa to the beaches of Antarctica, and is on display through April 16.
    • Hack Shack Tech Club — Blossoming designers and budding engineers in fifth through eighth grade are invited to join this club that explores science and technology through experiments with computer programming and designing video games. Classes meet the first Thursday of each month from 5 to 7 p.m. On March 3, the topic is LED Mania, tinkering with light-emitting diodes on several take-home projects. Cost: $15 members, $20 nonmembers.

    • Gems Club — This monthly club for girls in grades 3 through 8 who are interested in science and technology meets the last Tuesday of the month from 5 to 7 p.m. They discover a different topic each month. Dinner and refreshments will be provided. On Feb. 23, the topic is electrifying energy. On March 29, the topic is botanical science. April 26, enthusiastic engineers. $5 per meeting or get an annual enrollment pass for $55.

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