FOUR MILES FROM SHORE IN THE GREAT SALT LAKE, Davis County — Colby Neuman asks a dozen children what lives in the lake.
"Brine shrimp," said one boy sitting on the ship's deck and wearing a name tag with a representation of that creature. "Yep, brine shrimp is one," Neuman replied.
"Algae?" said a fourth-grade girl. "Algae's another," Neuman agreed.
"Grebe," a voice said softly.
"Are there any fish?" a girl asked, louder.
"Not fish," he said. "Nope. 'Cause — why can't fish live in the Great Salt Lake?"
"Too salty!" chorused the group wearing brine shrimp tags.
Brine fly larvae was one of the right answers. But only after coaxing and hints did the youngsters name another type of life in Utah's inland sea: bacteria.
Neuman, a meteorology graduate student at the University of Utah, is one of the scientists with Project WEST that is teaching the youngsters about the biology, hydrology, chemistry, water density, geology, prehistory and salt content of the lake.
Project WEST (Water, the Environment, Science and Teaching), is based at the U. and sponsored by the National Science Foundation. It aims to help elementary and middle-school students learn about science through hands-on experience. Partners in the program include the university, the Utah Museum of Natural History and the Salt Lake City School District. The Utah Geological Survey also lends a hand.
Major assistance comes from Steve Ingram, owner and captain of the ship, as he offered the educational cruises at far below usual cost, seeking only reimbursement of expenses.
This past Tuesday morning, 53 third-graders and fourth-graders from two elementary schools, Ensign and Parkview, were aboard the Island Serenade with about eight WEST instructors, project director Holly Godsey, a school district science specialist, two teachers, three parents and a teacher's aide.
Students from Ensign Elementary, 775 12th Ave., wore caps embroidered with JRP, for Junior Ranger Program. Students from Parkview Elementary, Glendale, had no special headgear. Some were born in the United States, some were refugees from the Sudan, some were immigrants from Latin American countries.
"I've had three kids tell me that they've never seen a boat before," said their teacher, Pam Fitches. "We have some kids who hardly speak any English at all."
Divided into groups called brine shrimp, eared grebe and algae rather than by school, the youngsters got along well together. They carried worksheets that they filled out as they circulated through the ship. They learned about salinity, navigation and lake chemistry. They experimented to find water depth and studied live brine shrimp.
"I got to see a brine shrimp giving birth," said a student who had peered at nearly microscopic eggs and tiny parent shrimp floating in a petri dish of lake water.
Inside the spacious cabin, students went from table to table examining maps. On a laptop, a chart tied to a GPS receiver showed the ship's progress as it neared its research site on the Davis County side of the Salt Lake-Davis line.
"We're going to try to figure out how far from the boat harbor to our research station," said one of the instructors, Kim Hall, an undergraduate student at the U. "We're going to use the map to figure that out; we're also going to use that — this is called a protractor."
The spot, about four miles out, marked the edge of a deeper section of the lake, 25 to 30 feet down, where extremely dense brines are located.
On the upper deck, Ken O'Brien, science specialist with the school district, observed that the students were having "an experience that they're not going to forget. It's, I think, invaluable. They get to appreciate where they live. ... I think they take away too that scientists come in all shapes and sizes."
So often, schools teach science through books and worksheets, he said. But science is a way of knowing, a process, and he thinks sometimes that may get lost in all of the memorizing and regurgitating.
"And this is an opportunity for kids to actually do science."
The Island Serenade stopped on smooth turquoise water, and students watched as instructors lowered water sample tubes through the slick, dense surface. They compared salinity from the clear top layer with that of the brown water at the bottom.
Besides salinity, dissolved oxygen and chemistry checks, they also carried out sniff tests with both samples.
The top layers smelled sea-like.
Next, graduate student Wade Oliver passed around a jar of yellowish-brown water from the lowest depths. "We're going to see if this smells, OK?" he asked.
"Ohh, ho," a girl wailed at the pungent first whiff.
"Eew," exclaimed others.
One girl held a workbook over her lower face. "Oh!" screamed another girl.
"What gives the rotten egg smell?" Oliver asked, referring to the lake's sulfide content.
One puzzled boy said, "I don't know how rotten eggs smell." Another boy replied, "They smell very nasty."
Collin Teng, a third-grader from Ensign Elementary, said the trip was fun. "It means that I'm learning, and I really like it," he added.
"I like the part where they put acid on the sand on the Great Salt Lake. It just bubbles," said Dominic Montoya, who attends fourth grade at Parkview. Also, she liked the part where they put a disk into the lake "until we couldn't see it, and we put in the bottle, and then every time they put in the bottle, it's like three and a half feet in" before it was lost to sight.
"I thought it was amazing," Shyanne Samuel, a Parkview fourth-grader, said in a reverential tone.
Godsey knows the children may not understand complete concepts such as everything involved in water density. But "they get the idea of testing things and actually sampling things and learning things by having a hypothesis and actually testing it out as opposed to guessing."
They interact with real scientists, graduate students who are great role models, and these scientists are excited about what they do, she added.
"The kids see that and they look at them and think, 'Maybe I can do that. And here's somebody from the University of Utah. Maybe I can go there, too."'