Over spring break, a group of students clad in warm rain gear will squat by a tidal pool in the San Juan Islands, observing the diversity of species within the tiny ecosystem. Two months ago, another cluster of students dressed in shorts and T-shirts leaned over a railing and caught sight of more than 600 manatees — including calves — in the crystal-clear water of a Florida spring.

These are scenes from two W&M biology field courses that allow students to apply classroom concepts within natural environments. Course evaluations are decidedly positive, and many students describe their experiences as life-changing.

“There’s an opportunity to put place and discovery together in the field that doesn’t happen in the classroom,” said Jonathan Allen, associate professor of biology. “Even the best lecturers can’t replicate that.”

Florida manatees are sensitive to cold, so when the ocean and river temperatures drop, they swim into springs where the water emerges from the aquifer at 72 degrees year-round. Here are some of 675 manatees seen by the 2024 class at Blue Springs State Park near Gainesville. (Courtesy photo)

The classes serve as an example of the university’s commitment to personal education, research and the opportunity to solve global challenges. In line with W&M’s strategic plan, Vision 2026, a common theme throughout both courses is finding innovative solutions to water-related issues. Field experience also makes students more desirable to future employers, creating pathways to careers in natural sciences.

Allen, who designed the Washington field course, explained that an extensive body of research indicates that field study dramatically increases the recruitment and retention of STEM students at universities. He said that field experiences foster scientific enthusiasm and expand students’ perceptions of practical applications for knowledge gained in the classroom. Confidence in their own ability to pursue scientific careers also increases.

“It happens for everyone, especially students who are underrepresented in STEM disciplines, ” said Allen. “It’s the first time that many students realize, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”

Dan Cristol, Chancellor Professor of Biology and designer of the field course in Florida, also sees that spark in students.

“If someone’s going to get hooked by science, it’s probably going to happen outside,” said Cristol. “I’ve seen 25 years of student comments on course evaluations, and these have a distinctly different tone to them. There’s a greater level of excitement and enthusiasm that I think is largely due to the intensity of the experience.”

A brief introduction to the courses

Human-Wildlife Conflicts in the Anthropocene takes place in Florida during the last week of winter break. Each day, the group visits two to three sites to examine case studies that highlight specific human-wildlife conflicts. Students take turns presenting topics, and in-depth discussions take place in the van between sites, over meals and everywhere in between.

“Students comment that these were the best discussions they ever had because everybody is on the same page,” said Matthias Leu, associate professor of biology, who has been a co-instructor on both courses. “Everybody’s immersed in the experience, and that sets a totally different level of communication.” 

Another immersive aspect of the Florida class is that instructors and students camp at night, including building campfires, cooking dinner, setting up tents and bear-proofing campsites. The camping aspect leads to unexpected additions to the course such as learning to identify an owl by its call or taking a nighttime walk to observe eels spotted nearby.

“That’s the beauty of the field experience,” said Cristol, “You never know what’s going to happen.”

After returning to campus, students compose a reflection paper describing how the trip impacted their knowledge and awareness of the topics discussed in the course.

Marine Ecology and Conservation is held during spring break in Friday Harbor, Washington, on the San Juan Islands archipelago. Allen first taught the course in 2012, and Leu joined in 2017. Allen’s expertise focuses on marine invertebrates while Leu studies more terrestrial life forms, so interactions between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are often discussed.

In addition to lectures and field trips to different types of coastal habitats, students conceive, develop and conduct a research project. Each year the project is different. Sometimes it’s one big group project. Others, the class breaks into smaller groups to perform related projects.

“What we don’t have is time,” said Allen, “But what we do have is 12 students plus two instructors. So we have 14 people who can be counting things, measuring things, pushing things, pulling things, whatever we have to do. We collect a large amount of data in a very short amount of time.”

The students present the results of those projects at the end of the semester to an audience of peers, scientists and conservation professionals.

Students in the Washington course don’t camp, but they do share a kitchen, cook their meals together and, like students in the Florida course, learn all day, usually from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Cristol remarked that, in spite of the serious problems discussed during the courses, students come away with a hopeful message from both.

Students listen in to an after-dark lecture on the False Bay mudflat in Friday Harbor. (Courtesy photo)

“In the Washington course, it’s because they can see that there’s still so much beauty and a functioning ecosystem there,” said Cristol. “In Florida, they see the damage that humans have caused, but also that there’s so much amazing life that has adapted and is surviving right next to people. So I think in both courses, the students come away thinking about the resiliency of life.”

Leu explained that both courses have the same approach to experiential learning.

“They also have the common denominator of how humans impact ecosystems,” said Leu. “That’s more drastic in Florida. For example, seeing almost exclusively exotic species in downtown Miami is an eye-opener. It’s a little harder to point that out in the marine ecosystem, but we definitely spend time discussing human-related problems in each coastal habitat.” 

Over the past decade, the university has supported courses like these through the Charles Center, departmental funds and, most recently, a grant from the Office of the Provost. There is now also an expendable fund for donors to support these courses directly.

Students offer their perspectives

Cypress Ambrose ’24 explained that her experience in the coastal ecosystems course had a profound impact on her studies.

“The organisms and landscape I got the chance to observe and interact with were unlike any I had seen before,” said Ambrose. “I discovered a love for field work and research which opened doors on campus that I didn’t know existed. Since my time in Friday Harbor, I have worked on several projects through the W&M Keck Lab and even had the opportunity to be first author on a published paper.”

Raquel Layton ’24 has taken both courses and counts both of them as favorite experiences at W&M.

“For the Florida course, professors drove 7 students in each of the two 11-passenger vans, due to the need to remove a seat and fill the rear of the van with camping gear and food,” said Cristol. “Overall we drove 3000 miles.” (Courtesy photo)

“Marine Ecology and Conservation gave us a unique opportunity to observe many of the coastal and marine ecology topics we learn in classes up close in nature as they are actually occurring,” said Layton. “I credit this class with really sparking my love for marine biology/ecology and changing the trajectory of my academic journey throughout college.

Layton’s positive experience on the Washington course led to signing up for the Florida course, which she described as a unique field experience.

“We saw a variety of wildlife, from peacocks to apple snails to alligators and manatees,” said Layton. “I strongly encourage other students to take advantage of this opportunity. If I could repeat this week camping around Florida, directly observing the ecosystems with this group, I would in a heartbeat.”

Instructors are also positively affected by field courses.

“It’s the excitement in students when they see something they’ve never experienced before,” said Leu. “It feels like you’re back in kindergarten making mind-boggling discoveries, and I think that’s the most beautiful thing.”

To contribute to the Integrative Field Experiences Fund, visit give.wm.edu or contact Gerald Bullock M.Ed. ’97, executive director of development for Arts & Sciences, at igbull@wm.edu or 757-221-1023.

, Research Writer