Students explore ocean mysteries, help local community appreciate coral reefs

Geosciences undergraduate student Tyler Betz collects a mud core from a salt lake on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. Betz and 14 other Penn State students traveled during spring break to conduct research and while there also completed a service-learning activity with elementary school children on the island. Credit: Tyler BetzAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.-- Spending spring break in the Bahamas may seem the perfect way to relax -- but if you’re an aspiring scientist, it’s the ideal chance to collect data and study unsolved ocean mysteries.

Fifteen Penn State students traveled to San Salvador Island in March to collect data and conduct research as part of a geosciences course. While there, the students also led local elementary school children through an educational activity to show the importance of nearby coral reefs.

A well-rounded research experience

“The class focuses on the physics, chemistry, biology and geology of the ocean as a whole. There’s no better way to study this than actually take a field trip and complete a research project. Students get a chance to develop and execute research projects in the field,” said Lee Kump, head of the Department of Geosciences, associate researcher with the college’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute and instructor for the course.

Offered every other year, the course -- Geosciences 410: Marine Biogeochemistry -- always includes a research project in another location. Past trips have been to Jamaica, the Florida Keys and parts of the Bahamas.

“All semester, we’ve been learning about the ocean’s chemistry, biology and geology in class. To get out in the sun in a beautiful tropical paradise to conduct research was incredible. We could measure salinity and oxygen levels in the water with handheld devices,” said Caitlin Livsey, a second-year student in the geosciences master’s program.

From March 8 to 13, the students collected and analyzed data to explain four of the “great carbonate mysteries of biogeochemistry,” said Kump. They examined why San Salvador’s coral reefs were dying, despite the small population of the island and seemingly little human influence. They also investigated stromatolites, a type of rock that was once found worldwide billions of years ago but is now only found in a few sparse locations, including San Salvador. The last two projects focused on the seemingly spontaneous occurrence of beach rock, large sedimentary masses of stone that form along the beach, and whitings, a calcium carbonate precipitate on the surface of the ocean.

Students took mud cores, conducted chemical readings of land, ocean and water, and snorkeled to count marine life and other substrates along the coral reefs. At night, they used equipment at San Salvador’s lone research facility, Gerace Research Centre, to analyze their findings.

The intensive experience helped students understand the finer points of conducting research, especially after last-minute changes to travel plans forced them into a reduced schedule.

“Not everything works out like you’d want it to. It was a real learning experience with how research works overall,” said Liz Andrews, a senior majoring in geosciences. Andrews, who also had the opportunity to study coral reefs through the EMS-sponsored CAUSE course, says this trip helped her cement her career interests in marine science.

“The idea of working in the field is much different than it actually is. It is hot and sweaty and smelly sometimes. It’s good to get experience and really understand what it’s like, and what kinds of things you have to think about that you might not have considered,” said Livsey.

“Being able to go out, research a topic, plan a field study, collect your samples and synthesize a report on them is a valuable skillset, regardless of what field you go into,” said Perry Oddo, a graduate student in geosciences.

Helping the local community understand and appreciate coral reefs

One day of the trip was spent teaching 48 children in fourth, fifth and sixth grade about the benefits of coral reefs.

“When I talked to alumni who completed the course years ago, the thing they always remember most is working with children,” said Kump, who always adds a service-learning component to the itinerary. “I want our students to see what’s going on behind the scenes. Working with the local community shows our students the day-to-day lives of the locals, and it gives our students a chance to get to know them and make friendships.”

The experience started with Penn State students sharing about threats to coral reefs, how to combat those threats and why scientists visit San Salvador to study its reefs. Afterward, students led the children through an artistic mural activity, designed to reinforce the information.

“Going down, we had expected that the children wouldn’t know much about coral reefs, but I was surprised to learn that quite a few did know,” said Nate Meier, a senior majoring in geosciences. “It gave us a sense that things are changing, and that the children are being taught more in environmental preservation, which wasn’t the case before.”

For some students, the most rewarding aspect of the experience was realizing the similarities that cut across cultures.

“We talked about TV shows they liked, and subjects they studied in schools, and I was familiar with them. It was really surprising. The biggest difference between us and the children was just that we knew more about the science of the coral reefs, so it was good to be able to share more about that,” said Andrews.

The students are compiling the results of their research and are going to be making final reports toward the end of the spring semester.

“My biggest takeaway from the trip is that there’s so much to research in the world,” said Livsey. “It’s a relatively small island and it has its own research center, yet there’s still so much we don’t know about it. There are places in the world we’ve barely begun to research. It just makes you realize we have so much more to learn about the world.”

Created by Penn State student Nate Meier. For spring break in 2015, 15 undergraduate and graduate Penn State students conducted research and completed a service-learning activity on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. Credit: Nate Meier


Geosciences student Tyler Betz leads elementary school students from San Salvador Island through an activity designed to increase the children’s appreciation of nearby coral reefs.  Credit: Tyler BetzAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated March 31, 2015