Getting hands-on with sharks makes learning memorable

As the sun broke through the fog at Half Moon Bay, Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Crow and her students heaved a 100-foot wide fishing net out of the water and began examining their catch.

Photo of Karen Crow and a group of students on the beach, holding a clear plastic tub containing small fish

Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Crow and her students examine some of the smaller fish in their catch. See below for a slideshow with more pictures.

First out were the larger sharks and rays. Crow began deftly handling a mottled grey leopard shark, showing students how to hold the fish in a gentle way that allowed it to move naturally, before returning the 3-foot shark to the water.

It was the second of six field trips in Crow's Biology of Fishes class. With a large net, called a seine, students conducted a survey of local fishes. "We'll count and record everything we see," Crow told the class beforehand. "I'll teach you how to be a shark wrangler and how to safely return all the fish to the sea."

Students used a bucket to nudge a mud-colored bat ray back into the water before it could target anyone with the sting from its tail.

Holding a dark green fish with turquoise spots, student Joe Issel used a manual called the "Guide to the Coastal Marine Fishes of California" to identify his fish as a diamond turbot. "There's nothing like seeing and touching a fish compared to seeing a picture in a book," he said. "I'll definitely remember the fish I identified today."

"Students say this is one of the most memorable field trips in this class," said Crow, who has taught Biology of Fishes since she joined the faculty in 2007. "You can sense the anticipation as we haul in the net."

Student Monica Velarde was in charge of recording the number of each species caught, which included English sole, thornback rays, topsmelt and halibut in addition to the larger leopard sharks and bat rays. "It's good to get firsthand knowledge of how research is done in real life," said Velarde, a biology senior who is planning a career in science education.

This upper division biology class is no easy option for students. They are expected to know the names of dozens of scientific species and understand and draw phylogenetic trees -- diagrams that depict the evolutionary relationships among species and groups of fish. Crow has designed a syllabus rich in field and lab experiences, providing students with memorable experiences that help them learn the challenging content.

Photo of Karen Crow holding a grey, 3-foot long leopard shark

Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Crow demonstrates how to hold a leopard shark. See below for a slideshow with more pictures.

A week before the field trip, a powerful stench filled the Hensill Hall lab where the 16 members of the class dissected spiny dogfish sharks, opening up preserved lab specimens to learn about shark anatomy. Experiences like this, Crow says, help students lead their own process of discovery.

"Come look at what this group has found," said Crow, beckoning the class to look at the rubbery, labyrinthine wall of a fish's intestine. Other students extracted the contents of their fish's last meal or found mustard green bile spilling from the gall bladder next to the liver.

In addition to helping students learn, the hands-on nature of the Biology of Fishes class has also sparked students' interest in research. Since the beginning of semester, three undergraduates in the class have applied to work in Crow's Fish Lab on campus, where she researches the evolutionary forces underpinning the development of novel fish features, such as unusual or bizarre-looking fins and appendages.

Julia Taylor became a research assistant in Crow's lab after taking the Biology of Fishes class three years ago as an undergraduate. "During this class, I really fell in love with fish," Taylor said. "It piqued my interest in studying evolutionary biology. I did an internship in the Fish Lab and that helped me decide I wanted to earn a graduate degree in biology." Now a graduate student in Crow's lab, Taylor is investigating the genes responsible for the paddlefish's elongated snout.

Biology of Fishes continues this semester with a behind the scenes tour of the California Academy of Sciences Steinhart Aquarium, a deep sea cruise in Monterey Bay and a trawling trip in San Francisco Bay, setting sail from SF State's Romberg Tiburon Center.

"I want my students to get their hands on as many fish as possible," Crow said.

Crow looks at a spiny dogfish's brain with Tracy Chan and JR Clark.
Students use a scientific key to identify a fish.
Jeremiah Chua holds a leopard shark.
Kirby Fernandez and Tracy Chan return fish to the ocean.
Lindsey Sauer and Natsumi Iwata make the first incision on a spiny dogfish.
Matthew Snyder and Joe Issel compare their fish's head to the lab manual.
The class hauls in the net, called a beach seine