A Semester by the Sea
The Gulf of Maine becomes a living laboratory for UMaine Students
About the Photo:
"Most marine researchers remember a course that turned them on to
science. In Semester by the Sea, we'd like to capture that sense of
excitement and use it as a vehicle to teach marine science, along
with the quantitative, analytical and other scholastic skills that
are likely to be useful to graduates, regardless of their
discipline." — Bob Steneck
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To catch low tide one weekend,
University of Maine students headed to Pemaquid Point. A spectacular
sunset ignited the sky as they picked their way along the rocky shore.
In the twilight, they set to work collecting tiny marine animals for
their invertebrate zoology class.
"That epitomizes what Semester by the Sea is all about," says senior
Maryann Morin, a marine biology major from Oakland, Maine. "(It's)
students on their own time doing field collections, not because someone
is making us, but because we enjoy doing the fieldwork and looking at
what we collect under the stereoscope for our class."
At UMaine's Ira C. Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, one of the
leading marine research stations on the eastern seaboard, undergraduates
are immersed in the study of ocean science through a special program
called Semester by the Sea (SBS). SBS students take daylong courses in a
variety of marine science areas, including maritime history and
archaeology (i.e. shipwrecks), marine ecology and geology, design of
marine organisms and biological modeling.
Their teachers are some of the top marine scientists in the country, and
are among the more than 50 School of Marine Science researchers at
UMaine. The students live on the Darling Center campus, a stone's throw
away from their learning environment — high-tech classrooms,
state-of-the-art research laboratories, and the natural wonder of the
Damariscotta River and the Gulf of Maine.
Only a handful of universities offer similar undergraduate opportunities
to take a semester by the sea. The strength of UMaine's program is in
its faculty and its setting, which offers a remarkable diversity of
habitats — sandy beaches, estuaries, rocky shorelines, kelp forests and
intertidal zones that are world-renowned.
For marine science and non-marine science majors alike, Semester by the
Sea is an atypical learning experience that can take a little getting
used to. A class may start at 6 a.m. to take advantage of the tide.
Three-hour lectures aren't unusual. Fieldtrips inevitably involve hip
boots and very cold water. Lights from the research labs burn into the
night. By semester's end, each student has to correctly identify 100
marine invertebrates to fulfill one of the course requirements.
"(In SBS) you're doing your own species collection, gathering
information and getting your own results," says Keith Shadle, a junior
in marine biology from Indiana. "When you read the (published) research
papers, often it's our faculty who have written them."
Two of those faculty members are Pew Fellows in Marine Conservation —
Les Watling, professor of oceanography, and Bob Steneck, professor of
marine sciences. Both are dedicated scientists whose marine research is
recognized around the world and whose enthusiasm for teaching is
Watling remembers one SBS trip to Reid State Park to dig on the beach
for meiofauna — tiny creatures that live among the sand grains. "The day
was going to be cool, but beautiful and sunny," he says. "So I grabbed
my lecture notes and we had class sitting on the rocks above the beach
before the tide was low enough for sampling."
There also are days when nature isn't quite so cooperative. "We have had
some cold, rainy days bouncing around in a boat, with some of the
students getting a little green about the gills," Watling says, "so it's
not all beautiful days at the beach."
The hope, says Kevin Eckelbarger, Darling Center director and an SBS
teacher, is that a semester by the sea will forever change how students
view a coastline. "No matter what they do for the remainder of their
lives, I hope that when they walk along the seashore, they have a much
deeper appreciation of the beauty and amazing complexity of the oceans
and the organisms that live in them," he says.
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.