How do you see to it that your classroom studies are authentic? I’m a fan of immersion. For the past decade, my Midwestern Marine Biology class has included a week-long field study of the coral reefs and mangrove communities of either The Bahamas or the Florida Keys. This field study is conducted with chartered sailing yachts as a base of operations. This allows the maximum amount of time on and in the water. Many of my students make their first trip to any ocean as a member of this class. In fact, many over the years have even made their first trip aboard an airplane as a result of this study. Whether or not they move on to study marine biology as a career, as a surprisingly large percentage actually do, there’s no doubt that building rich background knowledge about the world in which we live is an overall win.
If you choose to view this set of 270 photos via the slideshow above, be sure to select the “full screen” option. However, if you want the full educational perspective, go back to view the images as they appear on the Flickr set itself. Here, you will find rather involved descriptions and discussions about the content contained in many of the images. Many of these photos will serve as open starting points for further connections with the community of marine biologists who can continue to inform our inquiries. You’ll find images of organisms rarely photographed as well as discussions of questionable identifications for further study.
For the past ten years, we have journeyed to the Andros Bank/barrier reef off the Eastern coast of Andros Island in The Bahamas. Image sets from our previous two field experiences can also be found on Flickr here and here. For many reasons, we switched our study site to that of the reefs and mangrove communities of the Florida Keys reef tract. This switch instantly provided the ability to make direct comparisons of these two areas. While the coral communities of the Florida Keys are no doubt less pristine than those of the Andros reef, there is still a wealth of life to study. In fact, for a course of this nature, we were able to observe equally as many elements of these amazing communities in Florida. Furthermore… since every day on the ocean is different, we were lucky this year to be in the midst of several localized blooms of organisms we were never able to encounter in The Bahamas. We swam with gangs of By-The-Wind Sailors and dodged many a Portuguese Man o’ War.
If it were feasible, I dream of a course like this where students begin a year of study with a field experience like this one… then spend a year studying, only to return to the reef in the Spring to make connections, etc. Though perhaps not economically feasible, I’ve learned enough in the past 18 years of classroom education to know that when I allow students to make connections first… before I ever open my big mouth… that engagement and understanding ultimately emerge. There is no doubt that a second visit to such an overwhelmingly busy and vibrant ecosystem would allow clarity of understanding unlike what we are currently able to do. Always asking for more, aren’t I? To tell the truth, my students and I are more than fortunate to be a part of a school district that, at the time of this writing, values risk-taking and innovation whenever possible. In today’s educational environment, this is far… far from the norm. For without this support, we’d still be learning marine biology secondhand from Missouri. In my mind, I am constantly imagining ways to make all courses of study include a live component where learning about real-life by proxy is a thing of the past.
For more on this program, check out our classroom network on the Ning platform. Much has been said of Ning’s recent move away from providing totally free networks. One thing I can say for certain from where I sit today is that whatever the cost (within reason) I’ll pay to keep this network alive. We have reaped countless benefits from the collaborative environment it provides in a very open way. We gain from sharing our work publicly for a real audience. We gain from the ability to easily aggregate all of the things we bring in to examine… and all of the things we continue to create. But most of all, we gain from the ability to create a seamless and persistent network of people from student to former student, from expert to author, in facilitation of our learning. In short, our students never leave us. Several of our former students now working in or finishing up PhD work in the field stop by to share what they are doing and check up on the latest in our world. There is continuing authentic value in that. I’ll pay for that with pleasure. In fact, I’m betting that I’ll be able to pay for that for less than the cost of a single textbook per year.