Nearby Coastline Is Classroom for Marine Science Course

Students in a spring coastal ecology class studied coral reefs and mangrove swamps, netted fish and saved diamondback terrapins. Oh, and there was a whale sighting.

Landlocked Ursinus College seems an unlikely place to study marine biology. Yet for English major Sarah Gow ’18, a new coastal ecology class offered interdisciplinary learning and a look at nearshore ecosystems.

Coral reefs, mangrove swamps and salt marshes were among the research subjects during two weeks of field work in Stone Harbor, N.J. Students netted fish and studied the creatures that live on docks and pilings.Under the direction of Professor Kate Goddard, the class carried out a horseshoe crab research project, and repaired fencing to prevent diamondback terrapins (salt marsh turtles) from walking onto the highway while attempting to find a dry place to nest.   

And, there was a whale sighting.

College to Stone Harbour MapCollege to Stone Harbour MapThe choice of Stone Harbor was an important one. “Stone Harbor as an area is not just a beautiful environment– it’s a hugely important environment right now,” says Gow. “It’s at the crossroads of the struggles to preserve the environment alongside human development and it’s so amazing that this resource is so close to us.”

The class helped Gow to better understand the intersections of disciplines. “I am English major and I have always loved science,” she says. “When I was growing up I played by the creek most of the time and my father taught me a lot about the ecology of our area when we would catch frogs and toads in the forest and farms surrounding my home in Kutztown. I have always felt a connection to nature but when it came to science I had kind of adapted the notion perpetuated by our culture that to be good at English and the humanities is the opposite of science. I was proved wrong – not only in my ability to learn the scientific concepts of Coastal Ecology but also in how the course tied in a myriad of subjects including sociology and the translation of scientific papers into common language.”

“I cannot express enough the privilege I had to see the beauty of a local habitat unfold in front of me,” says Gow, who minors in Spanish, psychology and creative writing. “We had the opportunity to research and participate in environmental stewardship of the area conveying the wide range of importance of the work of biologists. I think my favorite part was probably just sitting alone in the Maritime forests and naming the different animal life I could see. By the end of the trip I completely recognized the flora and fauna of the local species and could even explain why the grasses were certain heights.”

Research was done with The Wetlands Institute, a Stone Harbor educational and conservation center. Students also visited a Delaware Bay area oyster packing plant, a museum, and research laboratory, and visited the Rutgers Aquaculture Innovation Laboratory and learned about the business and science of raising shellfish for aquaculture.

Class member Sydney Godbey ’18 feels the time spent in Stone Harbor helped clarify the material learned in the classroom all spring. “We were able to do work in the field and speak with scientists who were actually doing the research we were studying during the semester,” says Godbey, an environmental studies and English double major, with a minor in French.

A boat trip from Wildwood Crest was “was beautiful,” she adds. “We were able to see a juvenile (baby humpback) whale up close. We actually saw him thrust his head out of the water to feed as a group of smaller fish leaped out of the air. I have never seen something like that in person.” –By Wendy Greenberg