Learning ecology by experiencing ecology
During May semester, natural sciences professor Johan Erikson took seven students out to explore the ecology of the Gulf of Maine by kayak. For three weeks, they investigated the “confluence of oceanographic, ecological, biological, geological, and chemical processes” that have led to one of the most biologically productive regions of the world. The class used the Gulf of Maine as a microcosm of similar processes occurring globally.
When you experience knowledge you are quicker to believe it and apply it to other situations, says Erikson. As Nichole Austin ’11 says, “The hands-on experience was … so much better than just reading a book and taking a test. We actually saw everything we were learning in front of us. I know a lot of the things I’ve learned in the course will stick with me because of the experience.”
The group spent several nights on Peaks Island and then ultimately camped for four nights on uninhabited Jewell Island in Casco Bay, about 5 miles off the coast of Portland. Erikson recalls the magical day when the group floated in their kayaks in a calm sea surrounded by adult and baby seals popping up out of the water.
Erikson reports that despite the modern conveniences of intermittent cell phone service and solar-powered laptops, the students treasured the bound pages of their yellow waterproof field notebooks, which they carried with them at all times to take lecture notes and make field observations.
Island-hopping didn’t negate homework for the students. They collected and analyzed data, took a test and wrote a research paper. The final project required a 20-minute class presentation – in Dr. Erikson’s living room on Peaks Island.