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It's shark week for students at one Colorado Springs high school

November 30, 2017 Updated: December 1, 2017 at 6:11 am
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photo - Junior and senior students at St. Mary's High school got to see a shark up close, something not usually seen in landlocked Colorado. They were dissecting sharks for the marine biology class. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)
Junior and senior students at St. Mary's High school got to see a shark up close, something not usually seen in landlocked Colorado. They were dissecting sharks for the marine biology class. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Frog specimens hopped aside Thursday in the biology lab at St. Mary's High School to make room for the big kahuna of high school dissection: the spiny dogfish shark.

"It's disgusting," said senior Damien Zuniga. "It smells way worse than the squid we dissected."

The project was gross, the 13 students agreed, but in a cool way.

"It's very interesting to see all the organs," said 16-year-old Gulliana Quezada, as she surprisingly pulled a small whole squid from the shark's stomach - apparently its last meal.

The preservative formalin combined with a strong fishy odor permeated the laboratory, as students in Albert Hartzell's marine biology class dug in.

With the dramatic theme song from the movie "Jaws" booming in the background, students, working in pairs, used pliers, scalpels, tweezers and rulers to examine and record the external and internal workings of the ocean creature.

"It feels like sandpaper on top and day-old bread on the bottom and smells like paint," senior McKenzie Boyer noted.

"It feels rough," agreed senior Draven Hackley. "I never thought it would feel this way."

The class is new this semester at the Catholic, college-prep high school that draws students from around the Pikes Peak region.

shark dissection
Junior and senior students at St. Mary's High school got to see a shark up close, something not usually seen in landlocked Colorado. They were dissecting sharks for the marine biology class. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

More than a year ago, the school surveyed students to see what kind of advanced science classes they would like to see offered.

Resoundingly, Hartzell said, marine biology came out on top.

While that may seem unusual in landlocked Colorado, Hartzell said many students come from military families and have lived near oceans. Others have spent summers in coastal areas and are interested in studying sea life.

Movies such as "Finding Nemo," "Finding Dory" and "Shark Tale," and Discovery Channel's annual "Shark Week" have piqued curiosity among this millennial generation, Hartzell said.

"It seemed like it (the class) would provide more opportunity for getting into colleges," he said.

Hartzell spent more than six months creating the curriculum for the marine biology class, which he believes is one of a few in the state at the high school level.

shark dissection
Junior and senior students at St. Mary's High school got to see a shark up close, something not usually seen in landlocked Colorado. They were dissecting sharks for the marine biology class. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Students learned about sharks' behavior and lifestyle in the days leading up to the dissection, including following sharks in their natural habitat on real-time websites.

The specimens were 2 to 3 feet long. Of the six sharks the students dissected, five were male.

Using a worksheet from Hartzell, students identified the gender (hint: look for claspers, males have them, females don't), counted the sharp teeth and located the external fins. After splaying the belly, students found the heart, brain, sex organs, stomach and the liver, which fills with fat to create buoyancy.

Senior Jack Velten said he was amazed that the shark has no bones, just cartilage, like a human's nose, ears and rib cage.

A discovery from Gulliana: "It was shocking to see their eyes are similar to the human eye - they have pupils and retina."

Some students intend to pursue a similar field in college.

McKenzie is pretty sure she wants to be a zoologist.

Gulliana is leaning toward studying oceanography.

"It's one of my passions," she said.

Draven aspires to become a marine biologist.

"I like water animals because you get to learn about another environment," he said.

Damien took the class because "I felt like it was going to be fun to learn about different things in the sea."

He hasn't been disappointed.

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