Beakers or wetsuits?

Home Features Beakers or wetsuits?

Yonit Shames

Published: April 12, 2006

Ask a student what he or she has done at PJC, and you’ll probably receive the usual, less-than-enthusiastic responses: “I’ve studied for college algebra tests,” “I’ve written three English papers,” or “I’ve memorized the names of all of Europe’s kings.”

But if you’re lucky, you just might come across one of the 17 students enrolled in the Special Topics in Biology lab class. Ask one of them, and you’ll get answers like, “I got bitten by a dolphin!” “I snorkeled with sting rays!” or “Man, my tan lines from that wetsuit were awful!”

Believe it or not, PJC offered a course this semester whose lab requirements included testing blubber gloves, measuring heat loss in potatoes, dunking fellow students’ heads underwater. and a three day field trip to Orlando, Florida to swim with dolphins and explore Sea World.

The course, formally called Special Topics in Biology: Marine Mammals, is one class in the Special Topics series offered by the Biology department at PJC. The lab’s companion class is worth one credit and is an overview of the biology of major marine mammals, including bottlenose dolphins, manatees and baleen whales.

But the lab, which is also worth one credit, has a format that is something a little different from the everyday classroom. Ok, very different.

For one thing, each student had to shell out a good amount of money in lab fees- $400, to be exact. However, this included transportation, accommodations in the Hilton Garden Inn, weeklong passes to Sea World, admission to Discovery Cove (an affiliate of Sea World), the dolphin swim- and a resident expert on marine mammals, instructor Jeff Wooters.

On March 3, the class departed by PJC bus at 5 a.m., headed to Orlando for an experience that student Andy Powell later called, “Senior trip on steroids.”

After the nine-hour bus ride, the group recuperated for an hour and spent the first evening at Sea World, exploring the various exhibits and even getting some unusual interaction with some of the animals.

Student Robert Isaacs, for example, was bitten by a dolphin at the Dolphin Cove exhibit.

“It sort of came over and clamped on [my hand],” he said. “The teeth were dull, but it had a very strong grip. It turned from, oh cool, it’s biting me, to oh no, it’s biting me!”

Isaacs said that the trainer explained that like puppies, juvenile dolphins like to chew on objects.

Luckily, the dolphin didn’t break the skin, his hand was fine- and the experience certainly did not dampen his enthusiasm for the trip.

“It was awesome!” he said of the experience.

Wooters said that he was concerned about the cost when the department set up the class, but that the advantages of a hands-on experience made the trip worthwhile.

“I’ve always been a big believer that labs are a better learning experience than classes. Everybody learns differently. The nice thing about labs and especially about field trips is that they appeal to all of [the students’] senses, so everyone can learn,” said Wooters.

After the fact, students tended to agree.

“I’m a more hands-on learner,” said Powell, but explained that the most important part of the trip was “sparking your interest and keeping your interest. After all those classes, you finally get to do something with it.”

The second day was the climax of the trip: Discovery Cove. The park, which only admits a limited number of visitors per day, features attractions such as a coral reef, a tropical river and aviary, and of course, the dolphin swim.

Students and instructor alike donned wetsuits, snorkeled in the company of stingrays and even barracudas and sharks (behind glass, of course!), and then got to interact in small groups with dolphins.

“They had us touch the dolphin, feed the dolphin, kiss the dolphin and ride the dolphin,” said Scott Murphy. “It was awesome.”

Without exception, the class was enthusiastic about the experience.

“The coolest thing was that the first time we rubbed [the dolphin’s] back, it came back really slowly and made eye contact, and it was like looking at a person,” said Melissa Murray.

Most students were also impressed with the good treatment that the dolphins receive from their trainers. Some, however, criticized the fact that the interaction was so controlled.

“It was fun, but I wish that it was more personalized,” said Jessica Marcoux, adding that she thoroughly enjoyed the experience and that she was very impressed with the trainers.

Wooters said that the idea for hands-on field trip labs started several years ago, when he took a group of students to Crystal River, Florida, where they snorkeled with manatees.

He said that he has acquaintances who had visited Discovery Cove and that students seemed interested in the idea when proposed it as the next in the Special Topics series. Thus, Special Topics in Biology: Marine Mammals was born.

Wooters says that everything met his expectations on the trip and that it turned out well.

“My favorite part is just seeing people experience things for the first time,” he said.

On the trip, he said he heard “a lot of people saying things like, ‘I never realized how big a manatee really is.’ That’s the difference between book knowledge and experience.”

Unfortunately, those looking to learn more about marine mammals from hands-on experience may have to wait. Each class in the Special Topics series is offered only once, said Wooters. The next class in the series may be offered in the fall, but nothing’s concrete yet.

Any word on the theme of the next one? No, Wooters says. But keep your fingers crossed. If you’re lucky, maybe it’ll involve a comprehensive study of the flora and fauna of Australia.

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