Portenga testing the waters with marine biology

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Catherine Weigle

Staring through the glass protecting the beluga whales at Shedd Aquarium, Steffanie Portenga’s marine biology class is mesmerized by them. The class was supposed to visit the sea lions, but they were not cooperating. 

As the students wind their way through various exhibits, they watch a show about ancient sea creatures and find their way through the rest of the aquarium. This field trip was not for a grade, but rather for students to learn about marine life in a fun, interesting way. 

“I started the marine biology class because I’ve always taught a little bit about the marine biome when I taught biology and biology for STEM and students seemed really interested in it,” Portenga said. “It’s something that I’ve always been kind of passionate about. So I always thought it would be fun to start a class.”

This year, Portenga has focused on creating a curriculum around saltwater marine life. Since she is not able to take her students to the ocean, she has tried to bring the ocean to her students. 

“It’s harder to do weekly labs and such because we’re working with marine life, and we’re not near an ocean,” Portenga said. “So we do dissections. The first thing that we dissected was a horseshoe crab. We took about two to three days of class to do that, and then we’re also going dissect a sea star.”

The projects and experiments that happen in the class provide a good sense of what could happen in a marine biologist’s career. for instance, dissections of some rather obscure animals. 

Portenga likes to have fun with these dissections. For instance, she created a week-long course based on Shark Week from the Discovery Channel.

“Similar to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, we took the whole week off of our normal curriculum just to learn about sharks,” Portenga said. “Then we dissected a dock shark.”

Given Portenga is building this class from the ground up, she’s still working out some of the details and what the curriculum will look like. 

“Well, I had a lot of ideas and kind of ran out of time this year,” Portenga said. “I’m going to try to talk about potential careers and marine biology. I have two former students who are marine biologists that agreed to if they are able to come in and person to be a guest speaker.”

Portenga wants the class to become more than just a science course. She’s hopeful that her students take something meaningful away from their time in her classroom other than just some random facts about a few marine animals. 

“We did a lesson on the Bermuda Triangle, and they had to do some research and presented in front of the class and all of them discovered that the Bermuda Triangle isn’t even special at all,” Portenga said. “It’s just a normal part of the ocean that’s been made out to be something that it’s not really. So they thought that was kind of cool that they were able to discover that on their own.”