Sharks and science ignite learning at Riverside Elementary School

The Riverside Elementary School library was filled with a class of fourth graders sitting tightly together on the floor, eyes wide and mouths open. At any moment, it seemed they might explode with laughter or gasp in horror. Every corner of their attention span clung to shark expert Dean Fessler’s next word.

With the projector screen glowing an underwater image of a great white, Fessler – also known as “Sharkman” –  said, “…and then, my buddy grabbed him!”

A harrowing exclamation came from his audience.

“You see, sharks spend their lives chasing things so they don’t understand when something chases it,” Fessler said – pointing to the place above the shark’s open mouth where his friend knew to grab hold of to place a tracker for Fessler and his team at the Shark Research Institute, based in Princeton. “We can track a shark swimming in Africa all the way from Princeton and keep it away from fisherman.”

Fessler, in addition to being a researcher, expert on great whites and diver for the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” has devoted much of his time to “demystifying the attacker ‘Jaws’ mythos” to young audiences.

“The entire mission of the Institute has shifted from primary research to preservation,” he said. “I took it as a personal quest to address our youth. They’re our future: our future lobbyists, fishermen, researchers, politicians. I am fortunate enough to target my presentations for a class of kindergartners or Ph.D. students.”

When not captivating classrooms with his stories and unique facts about sharks – such as more deaths happen from coconuts falling off trees than from shark attacks – Fessler is venturing around the globe to help sharks remain an integral part our ecosystem.

Riverside School science teacher Mark Eastburn called Fessler’s presentation “absolutely fabulous” and said, “I think the students were, above all else, able to understand the importance of keeping sharks in the oceans and the desperate need to conserve them from overfishing and the horrendous practice of ‘finning.’”

Eastburn hopes to have Fessler return to Riverside School for more intimate conversations on sharks.

Fessler’s presentation was a highlight of the many that took place May 17 at Riverside School. In its 38th year, Riverside School’s science fair is, according to parent volunteer Melissa Grzymala, “not your average elementary school science fair.” Grzymala has been organizing the event that surrounds students with science for the past six years. Approximately 20 presenters – parents, Princeton University professors and other experts – set up shop throughout the school grounds. Each presenter teaches something different, from fluid mechanics, molecular biology and neuroscience to data analysis, structural engineering and medicine. Some of the activities included giant bubbles, rocket launching, eye tracking, animal skulls and cryogenics.

The fair brought science to life – out of the classroom format and into something inventive and exciting.

“There’s no question about the fascination,” Fessler said of the students to whom he speaks. “Their eyes light up. I can’t tell you how many teachers have said they never see their class so engaged. Most kids seem to get it … The fear element [of sharks] is being purged, and I’d like to think I have a small part of that.”

The Shark Research Institute is a nonprofit that accepts tax-deductible donations from the public. To learn how to help, visit: www.sharks.org/support/membership.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida