Below ‘sea’ grades fine for these EHS students

By on December 9, 2015

ER20151125_GaryAquariusImagine being able to take a group of Ephrata High School students on a field trip to the Florida Keys and allowing them to visit an underwater laboratory. Imagine being able to make the round trip less than a day, without the need of a school bus or even an airplane.

That is exactly what the students of Mrs. Meghan Hooper’s Foundations of Science Class at Ephrata Senior High School will long remember about their virtual field trip to Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base. Aquarius is the world’s only operating undersea research laboratory where educators work with engineers, scientists and researchers 50 to 60 feet under the sea for days or weeks at a time to conduct research, develop new technology and train environmentalists.

Thanks to the latest state of the art telepresence capabilities, teachers selected for the program are able to share their experience in real time with students from around the globe 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

As Hooper explained, as part of her unit on scuba diving and the effects of pressure on the human body and the coral reefs, her students were able to check in on what was happening inside the Aquarius unit at any time thanks to that technology.

Hooper, who is in her second year teaching at Ephrata Senior High School, had a personal connection with one of the educators on board the Aquarius. Prior to coming to Ephrata, Hooper hailed from the Altoona area, having both graduated and taught at Altoona Area High School, where she came to know English teacher Amy Vinglish.

Vinglish is described by Hooper as absolutely passionate about scuba diving and about marine life. In fact, she even works part-time for a dive shop when she is not teaching. Her selection to the one-week long Teacher Under the Sea program hosted by FIU was due in part to her strengths as a scuba diver and blogger. Throughout her time onboard the Aquarius, Vinglish took an active interest in blogging her experience and made special time to interact with the students of Hooper’s Foundations of Science classes.

Throughout Vinglish’s weeklong stay, there were almost daily interactions between her and members of Hooper’s classes, answering questions and sharing comments. The culmination of the unit came Nov. 11 when the students were able to attend perhaps the district’s first ever virtual field trip to the Aquarius unit, hosted by Vinglish. To the kids amazement, while the students were speaking with Vinglish in real time, via a SKYPE connection, they could see divers and fish swimming past the small windows of the Aquarius.

One diver even snapped a picture of Vinglish holding a laptop with a picture of the live feed of EHS students clearly seen inside the Aquarius.

Even nearly a week later, Hooper’s students were still talking about the exiting virtual trip they had to Aquarius.

Freshmen Bryce Babyak, who would like to try scuba diving as a result of this unit, said that he learned a lot about scuba diving and the effects of pressure on the body.

“I didn’t know that they could only stay down an hour at a time,” said Babyak. “Once they get used to the pressure they can stay down longer but at first they can only stay down an hour at a time.”

Fellow classmate Melaina King added that Vinglish had gone for a week hoping to get the chance to spend at least one 24-hour period undersea but was unable this trip to do so.

Both Babyak and King also learned quite a bit about the threats to the coral reefs and some surprising sources of those threats.

“Besides pollution, some sun screen actually kills the coral reefs,” explained King. “Parents slather their kids with certain sun screens with a chemical now known to hurt the coral. But they are now trying to take those chemicals out of sun screen.”

Besides the effects of pressure on the human body and dangers to the coral reefs, students were inspired by this unit to learn about the effects of overfishing, ecology and even see rare species of fish.

Vinglish had long wanted to see a certain variety of ray. Her dreams came true during her week aboard the Aquarius when not one but three swam by her window. She was able to capture the experience on film and transmit it in real time to students worldwide.

Hooper explained that thanks to technology, throughout the entire stay, Vinglish had perfect Wi-Fi connectivity to update her blog, check in on Facebook and SKYPE with students including Hooper’s students at EHS.

Unfortunately for Hooper, the day of the much awaited virtual field trip, she took ill and could not attend. However, high school assistant principal Pete Kishpaugh was able to step in. Kishpaugh, himself a former Altoona Area High School faculty member and associate of Vinglish, was the natural choice to save the day and help make the connection from Ephrata to Florida.

To take a look at the experience online, visit Vinglish’s blog about the virtual field trip can be seen at

Check out this YouTube video of the project:

For additional information about Ephrata Area School District, visit their website at Gary P. Klinger welcomes your questions and feedback via email at

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