A Sea of Learning

Sixteen Rider students studied unique tropical marine ecosystems in the Caribbean during a two-week field course offered by the Department of Geological, Environmental, and Marine Sciences.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A sea fan sways rhythmically in the warm, shallow water, appearing to wave to the group of 16 Rider students snorkeling in a coral reef off the coast of Roatan, Honduras. But for all its inherent beauty, this is no vacation. The students are here to study unique tropical marine ecosystems in the Caribbean during a two-week field course offered by Rider’s Geological, Environmental, and Marine Sciences (GEMS) department.

With more than 30 miles of fringing and barrier reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, and rocky limestone shorelines, the Roatan Institute for Marine Science (RIMS), part of Anthony’s Key Resort, offers students the ideal venue for research and for gaining valuable field experience. The GEMS department has cultivated this relationship with RIMS over the past 14 years and is the only college or university in New Jersey to participate in RIMS’s educational programs.

RIMS is a renowned research and teaching institution dedicated to the study of tropical marine ecosystems including behavioral research and training of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins housed at the facility. Students receive four academic credits, learn about the ecology of Caribbean coral reefs, and developed a deeper understanding of how physical factors influence biological factors in various ecosystems.

Students also study the relationship of the relative dominance of individual factors, such as water depth, which can affect the distribution of organisms differently in different ecosystems. Research activities during the course include coral mapping; sea fan orientation; and the abundance and distribution of organisms in turtle grass, mangrove, and rocky intertidal ecosystems. They also spend a day working and swimming with the dolphins as they learn about dolphin behavior. The course culminates with students designing, implementing, and presenting their own independent research project.

Each day at RIMS involves a full day of instruction, field work, and lab work. The experience is one of constant exploration and discovery in which the students engage in hands-on research. The classroom is connected to a fully equipped dry lab and wet lab, which students can use to collect and analyze data. They are also able to avail themselves of a 42-foot dive boat that transports the students to different marine environments around the island.

“I learned how to perform research out in the field. It’s not as easy as in the lab. You have to figure out how you want to perform your experiment, do the research and write the report,” said Rachel Awe ’14, a Marine Science major from Chester Springs, Pa. “Looking back, I can say being in the field gave me a much better understanding of the process."

The trip was part of the Introduction to Field Marine Science: Tropical Environments course, team-taught by Dr. Reed Schwimmer, associate professor of Geological, Environmental, and the Marine Sciences, and Danielle Schmitt, adjunct instructor at Rider and Princeton University.

“This immersion experience really develops the students’ skill set beyond what a semester-based course could provide,” Schwimmer explained. “They hone their scientific writing skills and sharpened their analytical and research skills. By visiting a different country and by experiencing a different culture, some of the students might initially feel out of their comfort zone, but this allows them to gain a more global view of human issues, thereby broadening their own perspective on academic subjects. These are valuable real-world experiences that add depth to graduate school applications and to job interviews.”

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Students got better acquainted with a bottlenose dolphin during the two-week summer immersion course in Honduras.