Taking a classroom to the coast

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Story by Holly Hartung, College of Letters & Science

At a world-class research institution, out-of-the-classroom experiences play a huge role in students’ lives.  As part of the Wisconsin Experience, 88 percent of students participate in extracurricular activities that bolster their education.

In research, that often means traveling to the source itself.  For one group of graduate students, that means that even they get to go on field trips.

This week, 18 first and second-year graduate students in “Problems in Oceanography” are on Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia.  The remote island gives students an opportunity to conduct self-selected research projects at the University of Georgia Marine Institute from Oct. 21 to Oct. 29.

The course – taught by Professors Emily Stanley (Zoology) Claudio Gratton (Entomology) and Pete McIntyre (Zoology and Limnology) – teaches graduate students more about the researching process, enhancing their ability to conduct research in the field.

“It jumpstarts the learning process early in their career rather than later when they’ve already committed to a dissertation,” Stanley said.

By many on campus, “Sapelo” evokes sentimental feelings. It is the name of the island where research is conducted and the nickname for the UW course which dates back 30 years, according to Stanley. She joined  the course 10 years ago when it was led by its founder Jim Kitchell, now an emeritus professor of Zoology.

Sapelo is also a prime example of the Wisconsin Idea – it extends UW-Madison’s research mission beyond the borders of the state and draws together four disciplines in the College of Letters & Science: Zoology, Environmental Studies, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and Geoscience.

While on Sapelo, the students prepare a research project and several have been previously published in scientific journals like Estuaries and Coasts.

True to the course’s interdisciplinary roots, the research is equally diverse.  Some prior experiments include research on bacterial communities and studies of fiddler crab ecology.

Even unsuccessful projects are beneficial to students, Stanley said. She saves all reports—both published and unpublished—for new students to study each semester. Often times, new projects come from past students’ failed experiments, she said.

In addition to preparing research projects in advance, students and faculty travelling to Sapelo need to stuff any essential items they need for the week into UW fleet vehicles. Most of the costs of the program, include travel and a modest supplies budget, are funded by a grant from the UW Sea Grant Institute.

As the course syllabus says, “There are no hardware, pharmacy or convenience stores on Sapelo Island.  Our credo is ‘If you need it, bring it!’”

The Sapelo crew will be providing live updates all week about their experiences.

Click to see the Sapelo Facebook page, follow @UWSapelo on Twitter or read the class blog.