Marine Science Up Close and Personal

May 12, 2015

Going beyond the book and expanding curriculum taught in the classroom is so important in today’s society where a book is considered “boring” to students who can find most any information on their tablet or phone. But, how do we get them to engage and truly understand the importance of what they are seeing? We do it by showing them as many real life situations as we can. Giving students a new perspective of the “real world” via field trips proves to be an invaluable teaching tool that can have far-reaching effects.

Science Scene recently discovered a marine science field trip where students have the opportunity to take part in hands-on experiences that will give them a better understanding of our environment. Gulf Shores Beach Retreat partnered with Marine Science Adventures to provide an educational learning experience that your students will never forget! Customizable for teachers, students participate in a three-day camp that consists of seining, collecting specimens, exploring ecosystems, and learning about endangered species. All of these activities are taught in a fun, exciting way that will capture the attention of both students and teachers, while providing environmental awareness and reinforcing the importance of being good stewards. 

Dr. John Simpson, a marine biologist and college professor, began marine science field trips in the 1980’s. He also developed a continuing education program, through Jacksonville State University, for science teachers: “How to Plan and Implement a Marine Science Field Trip for Your Students.” Now, as a part of the Gulf Shores Marine Science Adventures Field Trip, Dr. Simpson has developed pre-trip materials to help prepare teachers and students ahead of time for what they may encounter on their field trip. These materials include a trip overview, activity sheets, printable checklists, key vocabulary, lesson plans, and an online presentation, ensuring groups get the most out of their experience. Each participant is given a Marine Science Adventures Field Notebook to complete during the trip. Post-trip lessons are also supplied for use after the field trip and include a written activity, follow-up project and rubrics and keys.

Take a Trip on the Wet Side.

Dr. Simpson met with us all upon arrival and explained to us how our next couple of days would be spent exploring the Gulf of Mexico, Intertidal Zones, Splash Zones, Dune systems, Maritime Forests, estuaries, and salt marshes. He also explained the importance of protecting each one and the role each plays in the overall health of the Gulf environment.

Our first adventure was to the beach (right across the street from our retreat) where we learned about sea turtles and how they are protected as an endangered species. Next, we walked to the Little Lagoon for a night seine where we discovered numerous specimens—even a sea hare and Ctenophores that glow in the dark!

The next morning, we went back to the beach and attempted to seine the Gulf to see what specimens we could find living there. However, the wind was too rough to work with the seines. Instead, we used the “Slurp Gun” sampler to collect specimens from the intertidal zone (located between the tide marks on the beach). We were also able to find a few specimens as we walked the Splash Zone (located just above the tide line).

Our next adventure took us to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge where Dr. Simpson and his volunteers walked us through natural sand dunes explaining how they are formed and their importance. Sand dunes are valuable assets to coastal ecosystems and provide protection and habitats for various organisms. We found some nests belonging to the endangered Alabama Beach Mouse and also identified different types of lichens and moss that live in the dunes. When the lichens and moss decompose, they provide needed nutrients for organisms living in the sand dunes. The Maritime Forests are ecosystems of shrubs and trees that must be capable of withstanding the ocean’s salt spray including Long-Leaf Pines, Loblolly Pines, and Live Oak Trees. As for animals, you can find foxes, feral hogs, feral cats, and birds in the maritime forest. 

After leaving the sand dunes and maritime forest, Dr. Simpson led us to Mobile Bay Estuary. An estuary is an aquatic ecosystem that occurs as the mouth of a river meets the ocean and often serves as breeding grounds and “safe zones” for young organisms. The health of the Gulf of Mexico depends on the health of the estuaries. As our different groups seined for specimens, we found silversides, ctenophores, glass shrimp, blue crabs, sheepshead minnows, pinfish, sharp-nosed gulf killifish (bull minnows), scaled sardine, bighead sea robin, bay anchovy, oyster drill, lightning whelk shell with live busycon inside, a shark’s eye shell with a hermit crab inside, and more!

Located next to the estuary was a salt marsh. Salt marshes are low lying coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by salt water brought in by tides. They are marshy because the soil may be composed of deep mud and peat which is made of decomposing plant matter that is often several feet thick.

Salt marshes have a rotten egg smell because of all the bacteria growth, but they are essential for healthy fisheries, coastlines and communities. They also provide food, refuge, or nursery habitat for more than 75% of fisheries species, including shrimp, blue crab, and many finfish.

Through our adventures in the Gulf of Mexico, the intertidal zone, the splash zone, the dunes, the maritime forest, the estuary and the salt marsh, Dr. Simpson was able to introduce us to these marine habitats while stressing that each one is essential to the survival of the other. Without each one working together with the other, our oceans do not survive. And without our oceans, we as humans do not survive. No matter where we may live, the things we choose to do affect our oceans, so we must all work together to protect our water sources.

Marine Science Adventures provides students with experiences that will impact their lives as they see the big picture unfold before them. They will want to become stewards of their environment as they learn the importance of protecting our marine life.

Best of all, Marine Science Adventures makes it affordable—lodging, instruction, etc.—is all included in one price. If you are interested in customizing your own Marine Science Adventures Field Trip, visit their website or call Tim Hill at 251-948-8800. Field Trips are customizable to fit your needs and can be scheduled February through May and September through November.

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.