Indiana State University Newsroom

From fossils to Rainbow Fish: PhD grad teaches kindergarteners about the ocean

June 10, 2015

"You guys obviously know a lot about the beach, right?" Ashley Burkett asked Hannah Mickelson's kindergarten class at Terre Haute's DeVaney Elementary School. "So how do you think we go out into the oceans and study those? What do you think we would do?"

A child raised his hand.

"Some people use these little things that cover all their body, and they have these little masks," he said.

"A scuba suit!" said Burkett. "What else?"

"A tank!" a child shouted.

"A tank? That could be one way to get down to the bottom, right?" said Burkett.

"So we use this ship--that ship that I use to get out into the middle of the ocean. But it's pretty big. If I was standing on it, I'd only be this big," said Burkett. "I'd just be a little Lego person."

The class erupted in giggles. From there, Burkett, who this spring completed a Ph.D. in spatial and earth science at Indiana State University, explained pressure under the weight of water by asking how the children's ears felt at the bottom of a pool. A PowerPoint stood ready behind her to introduce topic headers and show pictures of Burkett in the deep-sea submersible Alvin.

You can only fit three people inside-safety prioritizes over comfort in the submarines, which must be "built like tanks" to sustain the tremendous weight of the ocean above them, she said.

Burkett led the children on an imaginative submarine excursion in the classroom, where the students made sure to remove their watches, socks, and shoes before climbing down the hatch, and sealing it. The submarine dove until there was no longer light, and they used robotic arms to examine sediment rocks and creatures on the seafloor. After docking, the children asked more burning questions about Alvin:

"How do submarines go down without pressure pushing you up?"

"What if you forgot and you didn't have any food in your submarine?"

"How fast can Alvin go?"

"How do fish breathe underwater?"

"Is Alvin and a helicopter the same thing?"

Burkett was happy to answer all of them. After the presentation, Mickelson counted off the children by six "friends" to visit each learning station, rotating every couple minutes. The stations held microscopes, fossils, a fish tank, and Styrofoam heads to demonstrate the effect of water pressure-all of which, even the living starfish and sea urchin, the children could freely ask about and touch.

Even Rainbow Fish, who has taught elementary schoolers the joys of sharing since 1992, was present at one of the tables.

Mickelson and Burkett met a couple years ago when Burkett presented for children at the Indiana State Science Camp. Mickelson thought Burkett would be a great resource for Ocean Day during the 12 Days of Summer at DeVaney.

According to Mickelson, most of the students had never been to the beach or seen an ocean in real life. "They don't have access to an aquarium, really, in our town. They never get to do this." She also said it was an opportunity to get the children to dream about the future, as she tries to discuss career options all year long.

"They're so engaged, they're so interested and this is another option that is out there."

There were two half-hour presentations on May 26, with two classes in each group.

Burkett believes in the importance of teaching science to chilldren because "kids are really impressionable, and they can really retain so much information and all you have to do is present it to them. It's amazing all the little facts they'll pick up. I mean, I had some kids telling me about different types of squids and even methane seeps which I studied at ISU. They have this incredible wealth of information, and they may not retain it for very long, but when you make an impact--you really make an impact."

The Toledo, Ohio nataive credits her father, who is a scientist, for giving her a strong background for her future studies.

"I grew up having all this factual information presented to me," she said. "Instead of dumbing it down and talking to me like I was a little kid, he would tell me how the world around me really worked and thoroughly explained these processes to me."

Burkett said she still relies on things she learned as a child. Another thing that drew her to working with the children was that they are fun and enjoyable.

"To go from a frustrating, hair-pulling, writing-of-manuscripts to come and play with 5-year-olds and talk about the ocean" is a welcome distraction, she said.

Photo: - Ashley Burkett, a May Ph.D. graduate in spatial and earth science at Indiana State University, speaks to kindergarten students at DeVaney Elementary School May 26, 2015. (ISU/HyeIn Ko)

Photo: - Matthew Bly, a freshman earth and environmental sciences major at Indiana State University, discusses sea life with kindergarten students at DeVaney Elementary School in Terre Haute May 26, 2015. (ISU/HyeIn Ko)

Writer: Kristen Kilker, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3773 or


Story Highlights

Ashley Burkett, who completed a PhD in spatial and earth science at Indiana State, visited a Terre Haute elementary school to educate kindergarteners about sea life and undersea exploration.

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