HAZELWOOD • When Nicolle von der Heyde asked to teach at a middle school slated for turnaround this school year, she hoped to make students struggling in science excited about the subject.

The Hazelwood teacher had no idea she'd be able to bring to the classroom firsthand experience from a research project believed to be the biggest oil spill ever.

Von der Heyde, who will teach eighth-grade science at East Middle this year, applied last fall to a program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Going into her sixth year as an educator, she hoped to enrich her teaching with an experience in ocean research.

She got that and more aboard the ship Pisces in the Gulf of Mexico. When students return to class next month, she'll be able to give them her insight into the disaster they've watched on the news.

"What I want my students to understand is that we are very much connected to the gulf, the impact that this will have for decades to come and what we can learn from this tragedy," von der Heyde said. "I want my students to feel a connection to that and make the situation real for them."

Von der Heyde boarded the research vessel June 14 in Pascagoula, Miss., and arrived home last week. Part of her work on the ship involved collecting samples from fish to be analyzed for oil contamination. They also took samples from a dead whale they discovered to determine whether its cause of death was connected to the spill. The data from the Pisces' scientific crew could help scientists understand the health of reef fish populations in the gulf at a critical time as the oil spill continues.

Some estimates say more than 140 million gallons of crude oil have leaked from the bottom of the sea since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers on the rig.

"The signs of oil extraction in the gulf were apparent the moment we boarded the Pisces in Pascagoula," von der Heyde wrote in her June 14 online log entry. "It wasn't until a few hours after leaving the bay that the officers on the bridge notified us that we were traveling through the oil slick. As we looked over the deck of the bridge, we saw a rainbow of sheen on the surface and even some reddish emulsified oil."

Von der Heyde was one of 35 teachers selected for the program from 250 applicants and the only one from Missouri this year. To read more of her logs, go to teacheratsea.noaa.gov.

NOAA's Teacher at Sea program puts teachers in hands-on research experiences, which makes a significant impact when they bring their knowledge to their classrooms and teach students how oceans affect their lives, said Elizabeth McMahon, deputy director of the Teacher at Sea program.

Research experiences for science teachers can have a direct impact on the achievement of their students, increasing their performance significantly on state tests, according to a study published in 2009 by Samuel Silverstein of Columbia University.

Silverstein found that over time students of teachers who participated in Columbia's summer research program outperformed other students on New York standardized tests for science. A few of the teachers in Columbia's program had done research at sea with NOAA.

This spring, Hazelwood East Middle School was among 52 schools listed as the lowest performing in Missouri, based on test scores. A federal push to turn around the worst schools in the country has targeted East Middle and others. In exchange for district plans to improve the school, including replacing half its teachers, the school could get a piece of $3.5 billion in stimulus dollars.

"I know that it's possible for all students to succeed in science and I really wanted to go (to East Middle) and try to help engage the students," von der Heyde said. "This experience is just giving me such an amazing perspective and amazing tool to help me do that."