When The Classroom Lacks Walls

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.

2010 Florida Keys Spring Field Study

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.

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me


  1. Lawdy, don’t that make my brown eyes green!

    Great work, great photos…amazing stuff.

    (I’m taking about 175 underclassmen to Sandy Hook in a month–alas, many of them have seen the ocean, despite living with a stone’s throw of tidal water. I get hives just planning for a 1 day trip to a local site. I cannot imagine the logistics of your trips to the coast.)

    • Tell me more about the Sandy Hook trip. Bare feet on the coast cannot go wrong. What might be “wrong” is me even wasting the keystrokes to say that to you. You’re one of the star members of that choir for sure.

      Hives is right. It all looks rather glorious in the fallout from the experience… but not a single soul other than Erin sees the stress is takes year ’round to pull off that program in the way we do. That being said, I would argue that the other seven days we spend there do not weigh as heavily as that one day out. There is just so much crap in “getting there.” Ugh.

      But wow… those experiences are never forgotten. Facebook still pulses with images, talk, quotes, etc., from past voyages. I look forward to hearing from your day out. Somehow I think I won’t have to ask for a synopsis. 😉

  2. Ok, totally inspired and enthralled to have you as a colleague, just swimming on a high, here, utterly geeked with the coolness of what you are doing. 🙂 Happy, happy, happy. This makes my day. What an example to archive and come back to again and again. THIS is what it’s about… The example of what you are *really doing* is like medicine for us all. Dreams can be obtained! Thanks–not only for what your students are getting, but for what we’re ALL getting from hearing about–and seeing–your adventures!

    • Yeah, you know… the definition of “colleague” has certainly changed as of late hasn’t it? Easy to peer into the warmth of likeness inherent in one’s own PLN. (key understanding here: i use that term in it’s original form: “personal” learning network… not the “professional” PLN oddity that some subscribe to about the larger educational twittersphere. Too much is made of that. Relationships are still relationships.)

      Anyway- what I was trying to say is that I try to remind myself that although my life now features a substantial virtual element, the bags of blood nearest to me on Earth are still worthy colleagues. It takes a different sort of effort to get on with the folks you didn’t “choose” to work with. Hmmm… methinks I’m outlining a future post here.

      And really… your kind words of support are crucial support when sticking your neck out to do things differently, and to expending the extra effort to share one’s episodes of life. Once again, thank you.

  3. Sean: I had a feeling from the description of this field trip that it would be awesome. Your comment about airplanes and students’ first experiences hits home with me.

    That’s really want I’m trying to say with my blog, too. On the surface, things appear to be about specific content standards, but really it’s about that first time you get a kid to think really hard, or the first time you get them to go to Home Depot for materials for an experiment they designed, or just getting them to realize that school doesn’t have to be sterile. Welcome back to the oceanless midwest!


    • I want you to know that what you are “trying to say” with your blogspace… is every bit what your readers are hearing with every post. Your stuff is truly some of the best I’ve seen in the edublogosphere in a while. Your posts are thick and significant, and your approach to teaching is inspiring.

      School doesn’t have to be sterile. Agreed. NCLB has contributed a tent of educational antimicrobial hand sanitizer over the vast majority of our classrooms. I know I’m not the only one who thanks you for getting out of there to sit around the campfire and poke about in the coals with your students. The body of work you’ve dropped into virtual space since February is nothing short of awesome.

      And yeah… it was an amazing experience. It has been quite a run since 1999.

  4. Hey! So inspiring. I went on a trip like this once and it changed my life–made me want to be a scientist!
    Have you heard of Jellywatch (http://www.jellywatch.org/) ? It’s a citizen science project started by Steve Haddock at Monterey Bay Aquarium Labs, and it’s basically a website where students + anyone can write in their observations of marine organisms and coastal health–not just jellies. The data are kept in the database and accessible to everyone. Its global! I know about it because i recently interviewed Steve for our website at nature.com (http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/natureedcast) . His interview wont be up there until June, but thought you might want to know about the website he has now, since your students observations are still fresh! Cheers-ilona

    • Digital serendipity.

      I have to tell you that your comment here was one of those that happens about every month or so… where I am able to shine light on a moment of connectiveness for my students. I try to always take the time with my Dual-credit Biology students (http://mwsu-bio101.ning.com) to highlight snippets of these connections as they come in. The day after your post, we read from this list http://www.nature.com/nature/newspdf/evolutiongems.pdf at Nature.com. It was very cool to stop and use your comment and your blog there to illustrate another example of the connections that can be made in this media. They never cease to appreciate examples of how the work they do in open spaces affords us the ability to connect to others creating content… and grappling with the same ideas we do on a daily basis in class.

      Every single example of this nature adds another brick into a structure of authenticity we have built together by interacting in spaces like these in the past few years. We all need concrete examples if we are to understand the transformational nature of this media. Thanks for helping us to find another.

      Thanks as well for the link. Very very cool. In fact, my wife and I will be taking our three year old daughter to the Central Coast to poke about in tidepools this coming June. MBARI will certainly be a stop on that trip as well.

  5. Thanks again to all who have posted here since our trip. In the past I would often fret about not leaving what I saw as “timely” feedback to those who contribute here.

    However, as time goes on -and the comments become more thought-provoking- I am finding great value in letting those comments stir about in my brain for a week or so. As another edublogger (Shelly Blake-Plock) once said: “…to blog is to teach yourself what you think.”

    Thanks to all of you here, and all the others, who stretch my thinking every day.

  6. I am totally envious of your students. Being immersed opens a lot of possibilities. It opens up the minds that they can do anything. They can study while they are enjoying it and in the future I hope they can also looks for a work that they can enjoy as well. As the cliche goes “There’s no better teacher than experience”, the experience that you give to your students will definitely be engraved in their minds and even open up a career that they might pursue in the future.

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