Guest post by Dr. Kristine Stump, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Shedd Aquarium
This spring, I had the pleasure of working with my colleague Rebecca Gericke, Manager of Conservation and Research Programs at the Shedd Aquarium, to engage with college-level students looking to immerse themselves in the wonders of subtropical marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The course, called Marine and Island Ecology, is one of Shedd’s continuing education courses and is offered to students from several local colleges which collectively form the Associated Colleges of the Chicago Area (ACCA).
The ACCA course was divided into two sections – a classroom portion taught during the spring at Shedd, and a field portion abroad at the end of the semester. The latter of the two is where we saw our 16 students truly blossom into young ecologists, as we took them on a nine-day learning excursion in the Exuma Cays, Bahamas aboard Shedd’s research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II.
Prior to boarding the R/V Coral Reef II, we spent five weeks teaching students about the ecology and connectivity of key tropical and subtropical communities such as coral reefs, mangrove forests, seagrass beds and intertidal zones. We taught them about tropical marine invertebrates, fish, plants and geology, with an emphasis on the identification of key species and their roles in their respective ecosystems. We also discussed the benefits and challenges of conservation management in island ecosystems such as the ones we would be visiting.
After hitting the books at Shedd, we flew to Miami and set sail for The Bahamas. The R/V Coral Reef II is an incredible learning platform that we were able to use to take the students to see the very tropical systems we had been teaching them about all semester. It’s an 80-foot research vessel that is custom designed for field work with its own laboratory. It is truly an indispensable tool for Shedd, as it helps not only our research and conservation efforts, but also allows us to expose students of all ages to the ecosystems and species we study, helping to foster a deeper appreciation.
In addition to leading students on snorkeling excursions, island hikes, and beach cleanups, we also spent a day catching and processing endangered Bahamian rock iguanas on Gaulin Cay, in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a field site that Vice President of Research and Conservation Dr. Chuck Knapp has been visiting for more than 20 years. As a result, students not only got to visit an actual Shedd research site, but also were able to participate in real life, hands-on field work. To Dr. Knapp’s surprise, we were able to catch, tag and release about 30 iguanas for the database!
The Marine and Island Ecology course exemplifies the power of experiential learning and reaffirms that there are some things that simply can’t be taught in a classroom. Being able to take students to see firsthand coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangrove forests and many other things we taught them about was exciting for us as instructors to watch happen, as many of the students had never seen them before. We are very grateful to The Bahamas for allowing us to bring students to experience the beautiful island nation, and we hope that as a result of the experience, they become better stewards of the marine environment.
Although we know our students learned a lot from the experience, what we loved most was having the chance to learn from them. Their questions challenged us as instructors to learn more, and their independent projects showed remarkable depth of research into scientific literature. There are few things that compare to watching a student’s eyes widen during these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and we’re happy Shedd was able to play an instrumental role in their education. Rebecca and I are already looking forward to next year!
Dr. Kristine Stump is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research at Shedd Aquarium. Her work focuses on the spatial and temporal dynamics of Nassau grouper spawning aggregations. Her findings will assist the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources to establish a science-based management plan for the endangered species.