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April / May 2002 Cover

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A Semester by the Sea

Photo by Linda Healy

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 contagious.

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
April-May, 2002

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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