Marine Field Research offers unconventional learning on — and under — Biscayne Bay
April 11, 2021
When she arrived at Ransom Everglades in 2018, Dr. Kristine Stump had big plans for getting students into Biscayne Bay and under the water. For the past two years, the Marine Field Research (MFR) class at RE has been anything but a traditional science class; Students receive their scuba certification, tag sharks, and collect data on coral bleaching off Key Biscayne.
Dr. Stump, Dr. Brooke Gintert, and Dr. Kelly Jackson compose the trio that proposed MFR three years ago. The teachers are shark, coral ecology, and marine geology specialists, respectively. Grace Arriola ‘21 explained that because “all three teachers specialize in different things, there’s always really interesting information coming from different points of view.”
As a coral ecology specialist, Dr. Gintert has “spent years studying coral communities here in Florida and throughout the Caribbean.” She is “committed not only to teaching [her] students how our actions can threaten local ecosystems, but also to engaging them in the solutions to these problems,” which relate to how Florida coral reef ecosystems are under pressure from local interactions and climate change.
Not only do the three teachers contribute to the classroom environment with their respective expertise; the class also accomplishes more concurrently. Dr. Stump described how “sometimes (she) will take half the class out on the boat and the other half will stay and work with Dr. Jackson and Dr. Gintert on statistical analysis… the next class, we will swap.” The class is currently working on the Mayor’s Challenge, a video competition to raise awareness and find solutions to various problems in Biscayne Bay.
While students do not use a textbook, Dr. Stump, Dr. Gintert, and Dr. Jackson lead processes of literature review and experimental design, where students gather data, test hypotheses, and communicate the results through projects. Arriola appreciates how she can go to “three sets of eyes for help with projects and research papers.”
Lindsay Gould ‘21 enrolled in Marine Field Research after taking AP Environmental Science with Dr. Stump, where she got a glimpse of the course. “Seeing the excitement that [Dr. Stump] brought every day made me want to learn more about sharks and the ocean in general,” she said.
Recently, Gould finally transferred her shark knowledge from the classroom to the bay when tagging a juvenile blacknose shark. Students prepared for the expedition using stuffed animal sharks to prepare for taking blood samples, measuring stress and lactate levels, and placing the tag.
Alba Uriarte Jimenez ‘22 described the shark tagging experience on the research vessel as her “favorite part of the class so far.” Although the class spent all day in the sun “baiting and unbaiting lines trying to catch a shark,” they managed to hook a juvenile blacknose shark at the end of the day, and “it was amazing.”
If the shark is caught a year from now, the angler or researcher can record the tag number and phone number to compare data and collect growth information to determine a sense of residency, which refers to the population of sharks that inhabit Biscayne Bay.
Pre-pandemic, students would receive their PADI Open Water Diver (scuba) Certification, but these plans were put on pause for the 2020-2021 school year. The certification course requires practicing scuba skills in the pool before ultimately completing a successful open water dive. Equipment like regulators and masks would have had to be shared, so COVID-19 has prevented the students from getting certified. Nevertheless, the class has remained anything but traditional.
The class has gone seining, a process of dragging nets along the seafloor and observing animals like baby seahorses and stingrays. The class has also set baited underwater cameras to measure and collect data about biodiversity in Biscayne Bay and placed tracking equipment.
This tracking equipment collects data for a project Dr. Stump is working on to track baby hammerhead sharks, funded by National Geographic. According to Dr. Stump, the objective is to learn “how juvenile hammerheads are using the bay…. Biscayne Bay is not ever listed in any of the scientific literature as a nursery area for hammerheads, but we have caught several very baby hammerheads.”
This could indicate that parts of Biscayne Bay are serving as nurseries. The class has situated tracking equipment at the ends of the Stiltsville and Cape Florida Channels to collect data.
In addition to continuing to analyze and collect data about sharks, the Marine Field Research course has plenty more in store for the remainder of the semester. Soon, the class will practice surveying coral using a coral reef mural that is laid out at the bottom of the pool.
This preparation is essential for when MFR takes a field trip to the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) in Key Largo, Florida, where the class will examine the coral nursery and outplant corals (a process of transporting corals to a natural reef so that they can grow in larger colonies) while snorkeling. According to Dr. Gintert, CRF is a “non-profit organization that built underwater coral nurseries, where threatened coral species are grown in a protected environment to later be outplanted on degraded reefs.” “The goal of this partnership,” she said, “is to show students how scientists, concerned citizens, and those who love our marine ecosystems are working to restore our local reefs and what it takes to make positive change on our coral reefs.”
Dr. Stump, Dr. Gintert, and Dr. Jackson have also been communicating with different organizations and researchers outside of RE to “establish long-term monitoring stations and protocols” for undertakings like “Coastal Zone Management and Everglades Restoration.” Building these partnerships could lead to prolonged monitoring projects on seagrass restoration, tides, mangroves, and ultimately help estimate biodiversity and develop “longitudinal studies looking at how things change over time.”
As of right now, enrolling in Marine Field Research is limited to juniors and seniors, but Dr. Stump, Dr. Gintert, and Dr. Jackson have ideas to get more RE students out on Biscayne Bay. One of their ideas includes organizing weekend fishing trips for research, which could potentially be available to all students and families.
With no textbook and countless opportunities for hands-on learning, Marine Field Research provides students with unique access to Biscayne Bay and faculty that have performed extensive research on the ecosystem. As student interest in the course continues to rise, so, too, will RE’s knowledge about its own backyard.