Bringing the Ocean to the Desert

by Chris Speck

I am a 2018 Golden Apple Fellow. I teach 7th grade life science (biology) at Garfield STEM School in Albuquerque, NM. A few years ago I had the good fortune to participate in the Research Experience for Teachers at UNM; even better, I got placed with Tim Boyle at Sandia National Labs’ Advanced Materials Lab where I worked on the coordination chemistry of gallium. This work contributed to the development of the curricular model I use most often- take work being done in the field and adapt it for use in the classroom.

Last year I was showing Chasing Coral in my classroom and one of my students said, “Let’s do that!” So I wrote a grant for a coral tank and we started learning more about coral. It was around that time that I received notice of my Golden Apple Award. It seemed only appropriate to use the professional development funds to finance a trip to the lab most prominently featured in the film-The Gates Coral Lab at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology. My goal was to gain marine biology lab experience specific to coral and use this to develop a robust unit to teach students about coral and the threats it faces.

My work at the lab was very diverse. I helped with spawnathon-collecting sperm and egg bundles from montipora capitata at night and counted the amount of eggs during the day. I replaced racks of coral on the reef and catalogued corals that were there. I had meetings with almost every major person there associated with coral and used the information gained from these and my work to develop my unit. Towards the end of my month there I also gave a presentation on best practices in presenting to middle school students.

The curriculum I developed in concert with other teachers is a complete introduction to coral. Students learn what coral is, how it lives and reproduces, and its importance to not only the ecosystem but to people as well. Students also will be doing work that mirrors the human assisted evolution that comprises the work done by several individuals at the Gates Coral Lab. In this experiment, they will be working with aiptasia pallida, a model anemone species that behaves similarly to coral when exposed to higher than optimal temperatures.

Coral reefs are threatened and could be dead in our lifetime. The work of the Gates Lab and others like it is absolutely essential to the preservation of ecosystems that hold the greatest amount of marine species on the planet. To me, ecology is the why of science. By engaging students in this unit, I hope to show them that by learning how the world works we can better hope to understand our place in it and by doing so, act in ways that leave the planet a better place than when we entered it. I am incredibly grateful to the Golden Apple Foundation of New Mexico for funding this work, Ruth Gates and Beth Lenz for coordinating my stay there, and Brian O’Connell for his ceaseless work in managing my time in Hawai’i. If you have any questions please email me at Thank you!

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