Oceanography Class spends spring break on the Gulf Coast

5 years ago


Like many spring breakers, a group of ASMSA students headed south to the beach for their vacation. But, their itinerary didn’t include tanning, swimming and partying. They were going to spend their time studying marine life and habitats on the Gulf Coast. And, for some, it would be the first time they had ever seen the ocean.

In a land-locked state such as Arkansas, it can be difficult for students to get hands-on experience studying the ocean and the life within it. When ASMSA teacher Lindsey Waddell learned the Gulf Coast Research Lab was expanding its education program to include high school students, she knew it would be a good learning experience for her students.

Waddell teaches oceanography at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, a high school for juniors and seniors who excel in the study of math and science. She and her husband, Jack, both graduated from ASMSA in 1999 and returned in 2011 to teach at their alma mater.

“I felt incorporating a field trip into the course, ideally one in which students got to interact with the ocean, would be the best way to take what was initially a spark of interest and transform it into a lasting connection,” Waddell said. “My goal in teaching the course is to have students leave my course even more interested in the ocean than when they came in, and for them to see how important the ocean is to our everyday lives. We all need to be aware of coastal issues in order to be good stewards of our planet.”

The Gulf Coast Research Lab is located in Ocean Springs, Miss., and is operated by the University of Southern Mississippi. 

“My trip to the research lab was my first trip to the ocean,” said Scott Jackson, a senior from Benton. “I didn’t know what to expect, I only knew what I had been told about the ocean. I was super excited to have a hands-on learning opportunity and I’m glad I went, because I am now considering a minor in aquatic biology.” 

Becka Kendrick, a senior from Batesville said she also enjoyed getting the hands-on experience that reinforced what they had learned in class and other topics they had not covered. “I wanted to go see and do things that are actually done by biologists as a career. I want to teach aquatic biology.” 

The students spent the first day of their trip exploring Dauphin Island on the Alabama coast.  An estuarium on the island allowed them to see species found in four coastal Alabama habitats: a river delta, Mobile Bay, a barrier island, and the northern Gulf of Mexico. Using a seine net and yabby pumps, the students sampled the shoreline in search of barrier island species. 

“My favorite thing was going fishing with an enormous net in the ocean,” said Jackson. “The purpose of this was to see what kind of marine organisms we could find right off the coast and whether we could name them. The coolest thing I learned though was there can be completely different ecosystems just a few miles apart.”

Senior Dan Pham of White Hall said he went on the trip because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to study aquatic biology. “Getting to actually go out in the water and see live animals first-hand, rather than reading about them in textbooks was amazing.”

The students also got a first-hand view of the ever-changing shoreline and how Hurricane Katrina had changed the island. 

“Actually seeing the transport of sand along the shoreline reinforced how heavily the island’s continued existence depends upon an uninterrupted flow of sand along the shoreline,” said Waddell. 

While the group could see oil rigs on the horizon, Waddell said evidence of the 2010 BP oil spill was difficult to find along the shoreline. “But the effects of the spill on organisms in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico is an active topic of research at the research lab.”

On day two of their trip, the students explored the salt marsh near the research lab. Waddell described the Mississippi sound as a “shallow, brackish and low energy environment” and said it was a good contrast to the “high energy” environment they studied the previous day.

“We had talked in class about how estuaries are important as ‘the nursery of the sea,’” she said. “The nets the students brought in that day were filled with baby crabs, shrimp and fish, so I think that is a point they will not soon forget.”

Senior Chelsea Simpkins of Jacksonville said, “I wanted to go on the trip because I felt like it would be a great experience and that I would be able to do things I have never done before. I was right.”

Students participating were Bobby Watkins, Jessika Meier, Savanna Royals, Nick Harrington, Taylor Flynn, Kailey Fogo, Scott Jackson, Becka Kendrick, Dan Pham, Jeremy Reynolds, Sarah Shillcutt, Chelsea Simpkins, Cici Cox, Jolie Whiteseven and Patsia Yang. Lindsey and Jack Waddell chaperoned the trip.

The ASMSA Foundation and the ASMSA Science Department helped pay the students’ expenses for the trip.


By: Mia Anderson, ASMSA Public Information Specialist

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