Learning outside the classroom is nothing new for Goshen College students. In some cases, it may even happen underwater.
Goshen College is in its 50th year of offering marine biology courses in Florida. That’s a golden anniversary of focused, hands-on education, and a program with an impact felt beyond the college campus.
In March of 1966, Goshen College instructors Frank Bishop and Jon Roth first led a group of GC students to explore the Florida Keys. Carl Weaver (GC ’69) was part of the next group of Goshen students to head to the Keys the following year.
“That kind of education – without walls, without borders – was very, very appealing to me,” Weaver recalled.
It also fit nicely with Weaver’s career path. Shortly after graduating, he was hired to teach biology at Goshen High School. There, he was instrumental in taking marine biology instruction to the next level.
Weaver was in his fifth year of teaching when his recounting of the GC marine biology trip prompted a student to ask a simple question: Why couldn’t a high school group do the same thing?
“I guess we all thought, ‘Why not?’” Weaver recalled. The Goshen Community Schools Board approved the idea, and the GHS marine bio trip is now in its 43rd year.
Goshen College students study at the college’s J.N. Roth Marine Biology Station in Layton, Florida, for three weeks every May, and Goshen High School marine bio students use it over their spring break.
Over the 50-year history of the GC marine biology program, hundreds of students and their instructors have made the trip to the Florida Keys.
“One of the really magical things about the program today is that it connects a whole bunch of lives and stories throughout a long period of time,” said Ryan Sensenig, chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences at Goshen College.
GC Professor Emeritus of Psychology Duane Kauffmann is a vital link in that connection. Kauffmann has been involved in teaching, research, and program development with the Goshen College marine biology program for 30 years (“He got hooked on gastropods,” Sensenig notes). Early in Sensenig’s GC career, Kauffmann told him, “You need to go down to Florida as soon as you can.”
Sensenig took the advice, and has no regrets.
“I taught it for the first time in 2008, and have been hooked ever since,” Sensenig said.
According to Sensenig, one of the goals behind the program is to foster students’ appreciation for the marine ecosystem.
“The fragility of the marine systems is more pronounced now than ever before due to the ramifications of climate change,” he said. “What a day and age for students to be excited about marine ecosystems! We need to get more people to get excited about the value of those systems.”
In Sensenig’s view, immersion in a new habitat is key to the marine biology trip experience.
“Some of our ecology students, while they have been to the beach, have never explored systems ecologically,” he said. “So they get down there and it is all new. There’s a certain magic that happens when you take a group of people into a completely new habitat together. During the Florida Keys May Term course, you live, breathe, and eat marine biology. It’s a life-changing, formative experience.”
Morgan Short, an environmental science major at Goshen College, participated in the marine biology course while attending Goshen High School and during college. She says that the trip was completely life-changing.
“The Goshen High School Marine Biology Program spurred my interest in marine ecosystems from a young age,” said Short. “When I was 9 and 11 years old my family went along with the high school trip as chaperones. This motivated me to participate in the class two years in high school … It was actually the second Marine Biology trip that triggered me to choose environmental science as my major in college.”
She continued, “The recognition of the climate crisis we are in and the unfathomable damage it will cause to the amazing oceanic world, and as a result us, motivated me to devote my life to changing the course of anthropogenic climate change. At Goshen College, the Marine Biology May Term course focuses on these issues in an intense 3 weeks. Both the high school and college programs emphasize building community and recognizing our relationship with each other, other ecosystems, and the community we are participating in.”
A learning habitat
Students are expected to get in close contact to the subject matter they’re learning about.
“Students spend the first week getting familiar with the creatures that are living there,” Sensenig said, adding that the students go out snorkeling twice a day. “They’re exploring grassbeds, mud flats, coral reefs, and hard-bottom sponge habitats.”
During the first week, students are taught how to collect data underwater. They are also organized into four-person groups, with each group proposing a research project. Instructors offer input on the proposals.
The second week is primarily research-focused. By the end of the third week, students have analyzed data and are ready to present their findings.
“The intent of the course is to teach students about marine ecology theory, verse them in understanding how to identify marine life, and equipping them with in-field skills,” Sensenig said.
The Goshen High School trip lasts one week, during which students are introduced to the area’s rich biodiversity and with research techniques. The idea is to familiarize high schools students with marine biology research to prepare them for college.
Weaver has been sharing his knowledge during the GHS marine biology trip for more than 40 years. He’s also a member of the college’s Marine Biology Advisory Council.
In part, Weaver’s involvement is a way to express gratitude to Goshen College.
“That first Goshen College trip was hugely transformative in my life,” he said. “To have teachers like Bishop and Roth pave a way to take students to the Florida Keys, and then to have people like Duane Kauffmann and Ryan Sensenig continue that … it’s pretty natural to want to give back and continue that kind of relationship.”
Weaver also said that he and Sensenig are part of educational communities that have been very encouraging of innovative teaching.
“Forty-three years ago, our school board said, ‘Yes, we’ll take a risk and allow this type of education 1,500 miles away from home on vacation time,” Weaver said. “And they continue to be supportive.”
“Forty-three years ago, our school board said, ‘Yes, we’ll take a risk and allow this type of education 1,500 miles away from home on vacation time.’ And they continue to be supportive.”
“One of the really magical things about the program today is that it connects a whole bunch of lives and stories throughout a long period of time.”
“There’s a certain magic that happens when you take a group of people into a completely new habitat together.”
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