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Bahamas Field Course


At IPFW, students have many opportunities for course-related off-campus fieldwork, some of it in international locations. In the cross-referenced courses, BIOL 434, Marine Community Ecology, and GEOL 331, Principles of Sedimentation, students study marine biodiversity and the process of sedimentation in marine environments. In this course, the biology and geosciences majors attend classes on campus in a traditional format, but the course also includes a week-long research trip to the Bahamas Gerace Research Centre, on the island of San Salvador.

Vinnie Peters, associate professor of biology, and Ben Dattilo, associate professor of geology, team-teach BIOL 434/GEOL 331 as a way to provide a broader, more interdisciplinary sense of marine life and environments, and help students better immerse themselves in the course content by bringing them out of the classroom into a real-world learning environment to experience and explore with all of their senses.

Students who take this course learn about biodiversity and fossils, but they also learn how biology and geology are interrelated. Established by Jim Haddock as a course in marine biology in 1974, it became an interdisciplinary biology/geology course in 2013. According to Peters, one of the “most important take-aways” from this class is that knowledge is not neatly divided into subjects in the manner of university courses or departments: “The separation of our disciplines is completely artificial, and this becomes obvious once you look a little deeper into that. But also when you consider the sciences and humanities or history, the borders between those modes of human knowledge are far less rigid than people believe.”

Students may enter this course with the idea that geology and biology are completely different subjects, but spend the term studying them as part of a unified “mode of human knowledge.” Krystal Peden (biology), commented on how initially “it seemed that most of us wanted to focus simply on our field and the ‘biology’ or ‘geology’ aspects alone.” But after a while “we all realized that everything was woven together—we definitely expanded our knowledge base by extending into other fields of study.”

Crystal Harter (geology) had similar comments, “I got far more out of the course than I had anticipated, and a lot of that had to do with the integrated disciplines. The geology and biology students were combined, which allowed me to integrate fundamental biological concepts with what I already knew about geology.”  Both Peden and Harter went into the class primarily interested in their own majors, but quickly appreciated studying biology and geology as one single subject.

As multiple studies show, fieldwork enhances student learning by providing Students in the Bahamashands-on experience that allows students to make new connections and encourages independent thinking. Senior biology student Lauren Lamboley felt that the tactile experience enhanced her learning, “It’s one thing to learn about gastropods from a PowerPoint, but to be able to pick up three nerites, hold them in my hand, and learn to distinguish a four-tooth from a bleeding tooth and a tessellated was astounding.”

For Amanda Straw (geology) fieldwork in the Bahamas brought home the concepts she learned in the classroom, “when we were out there we just learned so much about how the environment was influenced in paleoclimates, millions of years ago, and you could see it in the fossils. Like in the fossil reef field, the reefs were really high up on the shore, which indicates a higher sea-level at one point. These things we talked about in class, we actually got to see it.”

 According to Dattilo, it’s very important for geology majors to take this trip, because while other geology courses include regional fieldwork in Cincinnati or southern Indiana to see the fossilized remains of prehistoric seafloors and reefs, the Bahamas trip gives them a sense of what the oceanic environment in Indiana or Ohio was like during the Silurian Period, more than 420 million years ago. “You can go down US Highway 24 and drive through fossilized coral reef, but it can be hard for students to imagine what it was like. When they’re [at the Bahamanian research center], they can see it, and bring back the images while they’re studying fossils here. The process just clicks.” He and Peters agree that while lab and class work are important, fieldwork is pivotal to understanding both biology and geology. Dattilo adds, “Geology is a full-body experience. The whole body needs to be involved in learning. When the students are out there underwater, above the sea-floor with sand and shells, they’re surrounded by the subject. It’s a literally immersive experience.”

Finally, fieldwork gives students the practical experience they’ll need in the future. Lamboley, who plans to pursue a degree in marine biology after graduation, notes, “The knowledge and techniques I learned in the field with Peters and Dattilo have made me a more observant scientist and student. Peters has taught me the importance of persistence and accurate data collecting. These are assets and will make me more marketable and increase my productivity and credibility.” So, students in this field course enjoy a week in the Bahamas, but they also learn techniques that will help them become better students and better scientists.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Bahamas field course, you can see pictures from the 2015 trip here. You can also contact the biology or geosciences department for more information.