Getting in the swim of eco-diversity
by Monica M. Walk
Sunshine, blue water, coral reefs – and three academic credits.
The setting may feel like a vacation, but it’s actually the backdrop for a six-day/five-night, hands-on biology class offered by UW-Fond du Lac.
Two-dozen participants traveled to the Florida Keys with biology instructor Trish Strohfeldt in August 2012 to complete the “Biology of the Florida Keys Marine Environment” course. The appeal of the class was multi-fold: immersion in the topic; novel location; compressed time frame.
“I needed a science credit. Six days was better than six weeks,” said Joni Grams, 41, a special education major from Markesan, who commutes an hour each way to the UW-Fond du Lac campus. “I also always wanted to swim in the ocean, and I may never get to again. It was the best ‘vacation’ of my life – fun, interesting, never a dull moment.”
Grams heard about the class from fellow student Ann Davis, whose enthusiasm for the course made her its unofficial publicist as she talked it up to her campus connections.
“I thought it was a great way to earn natural science credits,” said Davis, 44, an environmental science major who has returned to her own education and enrichment now that her daughter is grown. “My husband, Randy, is a saltwater aquarium enthusiast and he took it, too, since it was open to the public. It was our 15th anniversary, so it was special for us. I expanded my interest in his hobby and look where it took us: to Florida and a research group that travels around the world. We’ve decided that all our vacations from now on will be learning vacations.”
Education was paramount on the Keys trip, and students maintained a rigorous daily schedule, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Learning activities included discussions on the Keys habitats, including sea grass, mangrove, and coral reef ecology; labs on water quality, and invertebrate diversity, morphology and behavior; snorkel expeditions for habitat exploration and species identification; and field trips to experience coral reefs, plankton, hard-bottom shoals, water quality monitoring, and a sea turtle hospital.
Strohfeldt’s long-term familiarity with the Marine Lab Experience (www.marinelab.org) headquartered in Key Largo made the course possible. She was introduced to the program as a high school teacher in East Lansing, MI, a number of years ago, and established a similar program while teaching high school in West Bend.
“Marine Lab has a standard program, and I’m able to pick what I want my students to do,” she said. “I chose to study the sea grass, mangrove and reef to see the relationship, how you need these others to keep the reef healthy.”
Before leaving for Florida, students participated in online discussions and article research about current issues in Keys ecology. They gathered for an evening lab on sea turtles and a discussion of their responsibilities as student ambassadors from Dean John Short. Students were required to compile a portfolio documenting their course experience.
Still, it was being in the ecosystem that made the most lasting impression. “I’ve done two tours of duty in the Army and I was able to swim in the Persian Gulf,” said Joshua DeGroff, 29, of Waupun who changed his major from environmental science to marine biology after the Florida trip. “The sky blue water was ten times more beautiful in Florida. I saw things I hadn’t seen. I saw an awesome sea turtle because of Trish.”
“It swam with us for 10 minutes,” Strohfeldt affirmed. “I like to find an organism and focus on it when snorkeling. That was the first time I swam with a sea turtle.”
Students also recalled the excitement of being close to stingrays, jellyfish, barracudas, large schools of fish, and sharks.
Freshman marine biology major Beau Schommer, 18, from Menasha, jumped at the opportunity to immediately immerse himself in study in his chosen field. “I want to be a marine biologist, so it was great for me to talk with the Marine Lab instructors,” he said. Close proximity to a six-foot blacktip reef shark was a highlight for Schommer, as was seeing a coral reef – although he was dismayed to observe tourists standing on the delicate, living organism.
The Keys themselves are ancient dead reefs, with no natural beaches. The beaches in the area are man-made.
Schommer also appreciated being part of a true learning community, ranging from recent high-school graduates to returning adult students. Class participants were housed in dormstyle accommodations and ate together. “We all clicked and got along,” Schommer reported.
A lab on habitat diversity was a favorite for many students. Large rocks, immersed in saltwater, were shaken to dislodge their hidden inhabitants, including hermit crabs, snails, and mantis shrimp. “We saw a species of shrimp never seen before,” reported Davis. “One scientist was there 28 years, and it was new to him.”
The group harvested jellyfish eggs and grew them during the week.
Field trips often were by boat, and Davis made an observation not on the syllabus: “One of the first things I noticed when I arrived at Marine Lab was that every boat had a Mercury Marine Outboard motor. That may be something that most people would overlook, but I was filled with great pride knowing the Fond du Lac community built those motors.”
A visit to the Turtle Hospital (www.turtlehospital.org) resulted in several “adoptions” of injured creatures by the Fond du Lac students. Their monetary support will aid the rehabilitation of the turtles, with injuries resulting from boat collisions, predator attacks and cancer.
“It was eye-opening to see all the dangers humans put on wildlife,” Davis said of the field trip. “Human impact on marine life stood out for me. Plastic floats around in the water, and they think it’s something to eat, because it looks like a jellyfish. We can act locally and think globally, and make small changes – like not using plastic bags. It’s like Nemo said, ‘All drains lead to the ocean.’ Our watersheds go to the Atlantic, to the Mississippi, to the Gulf. Plastic in the waterway here ends up there.”
That type of student understanding and action are at the core of the class for Strohfeldt.
“I fell in love with science and teaching science because of trips like this: hands-on learning in a community. You see real appreciation for the learning,” Strohfeldt said. “For those who will teach, they now have real-life experience to share. That stays with you forever. We all saw the pipeline where all the water comes to the Keys and how the fish are impacted. We’ll never forget that. It impacts them and their daily choices. We can see how we are connected to the ecosystem.”
The Florida Keys location is so lovely and the learning atmosphere so novel, that several students from the August 2012 class are making plans to repeat the course. “How many educational experiences do students want to repeat?” Strohfeldt mused.
They’ll have the opportunity next summer, when “Biology of the Florida Keys Marine Environment” will be offered again, with sections for both college and dual-enrolled high school students. Until then, Strohfeldt and a half-dozen UW-Fond du Lac students have made plans to become S.C.U.B.A. certified, to increase their ocean immersion experience.