Students learn about science, conservation and culture on Belize research trip

By Christine Buckley

White sand, palm trees, wooden huts and snorkeling are part of many students’ dreams of a perfect spring break.

But receiving college credit and learning something new in the meantime? That would be a dream come true.

Fourteen students at UConn’s Avery Point campus did just this in March, when they spent a week on the half-mile-long, 200-foot-wide island of South Water Caye off the coast of Belize. Associated with of marine scientist Peter Auster’s three-credit marine ecology course titled Reef Fishes, the one-credit study abroad trip is an optional laboratory component meant to bring students out of the classroom and into the habitat of a coral reef.

“Being next to a fish and watching it eat — you can’t ever experience that feeling unless you’re actually there,” says Megan Thompson, a sophomore marine sciences major and anthropology minor.

Unlike classroom lectures and even most laboratory classes, Auster’s course takes students into the natural classroom at a field research station, owned by the non-profit International Zoological Expeditions and located in the largest marine protected area in Belize. The station sits on the Meso-American Barrier Reef, second in size worldwide only to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.

Here, instead of performing laboratory experiments dictated by a laboratory manual, students design and carry out their own research investigations. After they return to the Avery Point campus, students analyze data, interpret results and present their findings in a class symposium, just like a professional scientific meeting — complete with coffee and donuts to authenticate the experience, jokes Auster.

However, he says, there is more to the trip than just conducting research.

“The least-addressed part of teaching the scientific method to students is observing nature and asking questions,” says Auster. “In addition to conducting their own research projects, the students spend time essentially just looking around, but with a scientific eye, looking at how fish make their living in the ocean, finding food and avoiding becoming food for others. They make primary observations and then ask testable questions. They document these observations and questions in a journal that is part of their grade.”

“You can sit in a classroom forever,” adds senior marine sciences major Britta LeMontagne. “But eventually you have to get out there and deal with problems as they arise.”

The class focuses on fishes that live on tropical coral reefs, including their evolutionary adaptations, species interactions like competition and predation and conservation. The class is open to students in any year, from freshmen to graduate students, as long as they can keep up with the scientific nature of the course.

The benefit of this diversity of students, says Auster, is that they can learn from one another. The course is structured to enhance peer teaching, he says, and gives students a chance to incorporate a diversity of perspectives that come from their own knowledge and experience.

“Not only are these students all at different levels, but their majors are different too,” says Auster. “Someone might know a lot about basic ecology, while someone else would know about statistics. They have the common bond of helping each other define the problem.”

Many of the students, including Thompson and senior marine sciences major Jerry Coyne, also found the cultural experience to be at once shocking and edifying. The marine protection act that created the marine sanctuary also forbids fishing in areas that have been worked by local fishermen for generations, leaving many without work. A conversation with their ferryboat captain, says Coyne, showed him that there are two sides to any conservation story.

“He still has knowledge of the area, so he was able to get a job as a boat captain, but it’s tough for people to get those kinds of jobs,” says Coyne of the Belize native. “We really got a perspective of natural resources management in general.”

Coyne hopes to pursue a career in aquaculture farming, and Thompson wants to work toward understanding how the environment and its preservation matter to different cultures. LeMontagne will pursue a master’s degree in environmental science at Alaska Pacific University and plans to contribute to environmental policy decisions by communicating scientific knowledge to non-scientists.

As for Auster, he says that after many years of instructing, he still loves teaching this class.

“It’s refreshing and reinvigorating for me to see the world through the students’ eyes,” he says. “Even if they never do science again after leaving UConn, I want them each to walk away with an appreciation for the diversity of life in the oceans. This can translate into the decisions they make on almost a daily basis, like the seafood they buy, businesses they support, where they live and work, and how they vote.”

Both the classroom and study abroad courses were open to the Department of Marine Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Students received partial support for the costs of the course from an Avery Point Scholarship funded by the Kitchings Family Fund and a subsidy from the Office of Study Abroad.

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