The Science of Diving

By Katie (Paxson) Hammaker ’93

Few teenagers can brag that they have encountered sharks, stingrays, and an array of other sea life as certified scuba divers.

Dr. Chris Schwilk, associate professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Special Education, made this opportunity possible for teenagers with special needs earlier this year.

Seth, a student at Yellow Breeches, receives instruction from Dr. Chris Schwilk during a pool dive in Heiges Field House as part of his scuba certification.

Seth, a student at Yellow Breeches, receives instruction from Dr. Chris Schwilk during a pool dive in Heiges Field House as part of his scuba certification.

Schwilk, a certified scuba instructor, recently completed a research project, “The Effect of an Adventure-Based Learning Experience (SCUBA) on Scientific Concept Recall in High School Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders.”

“I love scuba diving, and I love working with kids,” Schwilk said. He looked for ways to combine both into his life and work.

Simply put, the project used scuba as therapy and a learning opportunity for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.  

“The postsecondary outcomes for kids with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) are the worst of all non-cognitive disabilities,” he said. “Many of them have a high potential to be unemployed, in jail, or even dead by the time they’re thirty.” He cited drug use, food disorders, depression, and anxiety as common among individuals with EBD.  

Using scuba as therapy for individuals with disabilities is not new. Scuba has been used with much success to help the hearing and visually impaired, amputees, and those with autism, among others. But Schwilk’s focus on students with EBD is unique.

Schwilk pitched his idea to the nearby Yellow Breeches Education Center, a private academic school for teenagers with emotional and behavioral problems who are at risk to fail in traditional school settings.

“Dr. Schwilk approached us about doing a scuba program, and it seemed like a perfect fit,” said Lane Whigham, coordinator for the Newville campus of Yellow Breeches. Whigham is currently pursuing a master’s degree in special education at Ship.

“Many Ship alumni teach at Yellow Breeches,” Schwilk said, “but we (the professors) have learned a great deal from them, too. They’re on the front lines of the type of work that we do.”

Ryan swims with his scuba gear on in the pool.

Ryan swims with his scuba gear on in the pool.

Dr. Chris Schwilk works with students from Yellow Breeches to complete their scuba certification before applying their new skills during ocean dives off the coast of Florida.

Dr. Chris Schwilk works with students from Yellow Breeches to complete their scuba certification before applying their new skills during ocean dives off the coast of Florida.

Many of the students had never been on a boat before. One of the girls had never seen the ocean before. Two days later, she was jumping into the ocean and going forty feet deep.
— Dr. Chris Schwilk

Yellow Breeches, with campuses throughout south-central Pennsylvania, takes a non-traditional approach to education, focusing heavily on adventure-based learning through activities like camping, fishing, kayaking, and biking.  

One outing includes an annual trip to the Everglades in Florida. This year, scuba was added to the itinerary.

Eligible students were invited, but not required, to participate in the scuba dives. Students earned eligibility based on their good classroom behavior. 

Schwilk anticipated a small response, perhaps half a dozen students, for the pilot program. Of the twenty-three students who were invited to participate, eighteen accepted.

The first step—a critical one—was getting all students certified. Schwilk received his scuba and instructor certification through Lancaster Scuba Center with instructor Gary Sanderson. Sanderson also co-taught the students from Yellow Breeches. Scuba certification requires the completion of five pool dives and four open water dives, in addition to academic instruction. 

“Getting students with EBD to master a skill that some adults cannot is a challenge,” said Paul Sokolofsky ’10M, program director for Yellow Breeches who holds a master’s degree in special education from Ship. “Our students give up on a lot. They don’t always know how to push themselves, but they really wanted to do this, so they worked at it.”

Having read that this type of activity can positively impact students with EBD, Sanderson was eager to work with Schwilk and Yellow Breeches. He was impressed by their determination. “They seemed appreciative. They were so well behaved, they listened, and they did their best. Other kids their age pay half has much attention,” he said.

Three teachers also completed the certification to help as chaperones for the dives.

Scuba instruction is a logical match for students with special needs, Schwilk said. “The curriculum materials for scuba instruction are similar to the model we teach our teacher candidates to use with their students in special education,” he said. “For example, we use mastery learning, which means that students keep working at a lesson until they understand it completely. Also, everything that we teach we model first for the students. In both cases, it’s the same with scuba.”  

One of the teachers who took the class struggled to master some of the underwater skills, which was good for the students to witness, Schwilk said. “The teacher kept at it, and it showed them perseverance.”   

“It’s not easy learning all of the things that you need to know to go scuba diving,” Whigham said. “I was really impressed with our guys’ ability to step up and learn.”  

By early February, it was time to put their skills to use. The scuba group, which included fifteen boys and three girls ranging in age from thirteen to twenty, headed to Florida.

“Many of the students had never been on a boat before,” Schwilk said. “One of the girls had never seen the ocean before. Two days later, she was jumping into the ocean and going forty feet deep.”

Most of the students were quite comfortable in the water, Schwilk said. They were not dissuaded by the seasickness that many of them experienced, nor were they intimidated by the six- to eight-foot swells and choppy ocean water that occurred on the second day. 

“The students were very serious about this,” Schwilk said. “Students with EBD don’t always take things seriously, and at times can be defiant. But on this trip, they were so cooperative, helpful to one another, focused, and into what they were doing.”

“Diving was a little frightening, but it made me feel good to do it,” said sixteen-year-old Seth, one of the divers. “My friends thought it was cool when I told them about it.”

This experience was truly different. Scuba has really resonated with them. I notice a difference in the self-esteem and confidence levels of the students who attended.
— Jen Tynan-Tyrrell

The divers had a front-row view of underwater sites that most people have only seen on film or in books.

“We saw fish, some of them were glowing like neon,” said Ryan, a sixteen-year-old diver. “We saw about sixteen barracuda in a pack that swam right above us. We saw parrot fish and could actually hear them crunching on the coral.

“We saw a sea turtle swim by us, a few moray eels, and thousands of fish,” Sokolofsky said. “The fish were swimming right up to us. One bumped right into my goggles.” Students also reported seeing a shark, a stingray, and beautiful coral reefs.

“The guys couldn’t wait to tell me about the trip,” Whigham said. “These guys have had tough lives. They’ve really struggled in the past. To see them show such enthusiasm and positive energy was really rewarding.”

The dives involved more than sightseeing. Students continued to perfect their new skills to include underwater air supply checks and simulated partner rescues. They also developed valuable life skills, according to Schwilk, such as team work, concentration, and the ability to remain calm under pressure.

“This experience was truly different,” said Jen Tynan-Tyrrell, a science teacher at Yellow Breeches who is pursuing a master’s degree in special education at Ship. “Scuba has really resonated with them. I notice a difference in the self-esteem and confidence levels of the students who attended.”

Four dives were completed over two days.

Study participants continue to experience benefits from the scuba dives months after their expedition.

For obvious reasons, scuba divers are taught to communicate with each other through hand signals while underwater. Sokolofsky said that the Yellow Breeches staff has since adapted and begun using the signs at school.

“Some EBD kids go non-verbal when they are upset,” Sokolofsky explained. “The signs give us a way to communicate with them when this happens.”

Attaining the scuba certification also opened their eyes to new career possibilities such as commercial diving or becoming an instructor.

This is significant, according to Schwilk, because teens with EBD often see their options in life as very limited.

In addition to obtaining scuba certification, participating students were required to study science as it relates to the water and diving. The curriculum was designed to match the science content from the scuba curriculum. 

Concepts such as water buoyancy, the effect of water pressure and density on the human body, Archimedes' principle, Charles' Law, and Boyle’s Law were taught first in the classroom, then through real-life applications on the dives.

“I was super impressed with the maturity that they had,” said Tynan-Tyrrell, who taught the science curriculum. “Some students stayed after school to complete the required curriculum. They were very dedicated. When they got their tests back and passed on the first try, they were so proud of themselves.”

Follow-up testing will be given to the scuba participants to measure their recall of the curriculum. Students who did not participate in the scuba dive will be taught the curriculum in the fall, and the data from the two groups will be compared, Schwilk said. 

 “There is not a lot of data, so it’s hard to assess and prove that adventure programming works,” Sokolofsky said. “We (educators) know it works, but we need to prove it so this program can be used elsewhere.”    

Perhaps the only drawback of this project was the cost. Scuba is an expensive activity. Divers must be outfitted with personal gear and pay for the certification course and cost of the practice dives. Costs can easily top $1,000 per person with instruction, equipment, and boat rides. 

A grant obtained by Schwilk from the Shippensburg University College of Education and Human Services, with support from the Yellow Breeches Education Center, helped make the scuba experience possible. Schwilk also noted the help and support he received from Sanderson as well as John and Gini Walker, the owners of Lancaster Scuba, and the center’s staff and instructors.

“The scuba trip was intensive, expensive, and a logistical nightmare to organize, but it was worth every penny and bit of effort to help these kids,” Sokolofsky said.  

Schwilk plans to repeat the program next year in collaboration with Yellow Breeches, and expand if possible. He will present the findings of his study at a conference for educators this fall. 

Students’ last names have been withheld to protect individuals’ privacy.