URI Shark Camp inspires youth to explore science in higher education

By: - July 21, 2023 5:00 am

High school students crowd around a tub of water filled with scup and summer flounder. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

A slimy sea bass squirmed to break free from the pair of hands gripping it, struggling to return to the water. 

“Hold it! Give it a kiss!” Joe Barney called out to the group of teenagers, encouraging everyone in the group to explore what the different fish feel like.

“Eeewww!” replies a chorus of high school girls on the deck of the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) research vessel, the fishing trawler the Cap’n Bert. The students crowded around a tub of water filled with marine life from the Narragansett Bay. The species from this catch hauled out of Narragansett Bay moments earlier also included summer flounder, squid, spider crabs and dog fish.

Captain Steve Barber, left, and Vessel Operations Coordinator Mitch Hatzipetro, right, reeling in and opening a net filled with aquatic animals inhabiting the Narragansett Bay. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

The dogfish is a small species of shark and harmless to humans as long as they are handled carefully, said Brad Wetherbee, URI professor of biological sciences. Two spines are located near the shark’s dorsal fin and inject venom into its predators as defense. 

So at least the students attending URI’s “Shark Camp” this week did get up close and personal with a bonafide shark. The camp, founded by Wetherbee in 2018, shows high school students what it’s like to be a marine biologist over the course of five days in July. The hands-on experience they get provides an opportunity to learn more about careers in science and exposes them to higher education.

“It’s not just about the marine biology,” Wetherbee said. “It’s not just about the sharks. It’s a huge impact on you, which may start at this five-day shark camp.”

Wetherbee passed around a dogfish and encouraged students to put their fingers in its mouth so students could feel its teeth. 

Joe Barney, 16, of Providence, a junior at the Met High School, attended last year’s camp and found a passion for marine biology. Barney has been working with Wetherbee this summer and has his heart set on attending URI to study marine biology after he graduates.

“It’s our contribution to make marine biology and similar fields more diverse,” Wetherbee said. “I want them (students) to realize you can do things in college other than major in biology and go to medical school.” 

The students enthusiastically dug through the tub trying to sort and identify different species, which now included blue crabThrough experiential learning, students observe and gain knowledge about the various aquatic species in Narragansett Bay. 

“Interactivity goes above and beyond,” said high school student Blake Bailey, 16, of Cranston. “You get to touch everything, you really get to be at the heart of it.”

Shark Camp participants also take a trip to the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut and tour URI and learn about the college application process. 

Blake Bailey, a high school student form Cranston, took interest in a scup and chose to look at it very closely. (Jocelyn Jackson/ Rhode Island Current)

High school students attend Shark Camp for free and are selected through a competitive application process. Sixteen students were accepted for this year’s program out of 40 applicants. The camp provides students with transportation from the Providence area. 

The net dropped to the ocean floor for a second time, reaching a depth of at least 50 feet. The water is colder at these depths, so the net will catch different aquatic life according to the Cap’n Bert’s captain, Steve Barber.

When the net was hauled back up, the students could hear quiet growling coming from the center of the ball of slippery marine life that included flounder, sea bass, more dog fish and skates. The source of sounds were sea robins, also known as gunards. Sea robins are found in temperate to tropical ocean temperatures, their fins are fan-like.

But fish flopping on the trawler’s deck and laughter from the students is the sound that Wetherbee loves to hear.

“I want them to be a little more confident and also be aware of the marine biology field, come to college, realize you can do things in college other than major in biology and go to medical school,” Wetherbee said.


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Jocelyn Jackson
Jocelyn Jackson

A senior journalism major at Roger Williams University, Jocelyn Jackson was the editor-in-chief of the Hawks’ Herald student newspaper. She previously served as the paper’s opinions editor for the school newspaper. She is scheduled to receive her B.A. in journalism in December.