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USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: Why Experiential Learning is Vital to Academic Life

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Kali Staniec

You can’t always tell from photos, but Garibaldi can give a mean staring contest. I have seen pictures of this famously highlighter-orange California State fish in countless books and brochures on Southern California marine life, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized how much more there is to this fish than meets the eye. The same goes for an appreciation of their entire native ecosystem; and, I would argue, the world.

A garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus) stares down the camera lens. California's state marine fish is found in shallow waters off the Southern California coast and Mexico. (Photo by Jim Haw)

A garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus) stares down the camera lens. California's state marine fish is found in shallow waters off the Southern California coast and Mexico. (Photo by Jim Haw)

Growing up in Los Angeles, I spent my fair share of time snorkeling throughout the California’s Channel Islands. It wasn’t until last summer, however, when I had the chance to become a recreational SCUBA diver, that I fell in love with the new perspective afforded by being underwater. I never dreamed what a valuable tool scientific diving would be in my academic career before I joined the USC Dornsife Guam and Palau Maymester offered by the Environmental Studies Program.

It seemed unreasonably lucky that I would be able to dive for college credit, but in reality it makes perfects sense. No matter how many lectures students attend on marine biology, they will never fully appreciate the scope of underwater environments until they have the chance to see and swim with them, an immersive experience if you will. This notion – that first hand contact is the best way for people to gain a life-changing understanding of the natural world – is one of the cornerstones of experiential learning.

Incorporating hands-on education, independent decision making, and personal reflection after handling new challenges, experiential learning brings students outside the classroom, away from the filter of computer screens, text books, and text messaging, to participate in real life scenarios (in this case, science diving off of Catalina Island).

USC Guam and Palau students and instructors return from a dive in the Blue Cavern State Marine Reserve off of Catalina Island. Photo by Anna Eliza Pastor.

USC Guam and Palau students and instructors return from a dive in the Blue Cavern State Marine Reserve off of Catalina Island. Photo by Anna Eliza Pastor.

While participating in these projects students have to adapt on-the-spot to real problems while being able to apply background information. For example, how do you count schools of quickly moving fish or cryptic invertebrates along a transect line?

The Environmental Studies Guam and Palau Maymester provides students the guidance, tools and information necessary to feel comfortable with a topic, but also allows them to make their own decisions and form their own opinions about how to best apply that knowledge.

At a university with multiple missions and priorities, the time and funding spent planning and executing experiential learning projects might seem excessive, especially with some academic institutions feeling the squeeze of difficult economic times.

The truth of the matter is that these programs are irreplaceable in bridging the gap between successful liberal arts undergrads and confident individuals who have the competence to successfully apply their education to careers. But perhaps just as importantly, experiential learning is fun: and any program that sparks passion in students, inspiring them to leave a positive mark on the world, is an endeavor well worth pursuing.

When I’m hovering above the ocean floor, watching sunlight stream through 40 foot tall columns of swaying kelp, I wonder how many students actually get the opportunity to be “in their element”, to come eye-to-eye with the subject of their studies. After experiences like these it’s encouraging to see how the knowledge I already posses relates to the real world, but sobering to realize just how much I still have yet to learn.

My immersion in the environments of Catalina and Micronesia will attach new meaning to the many pages I will write, the long hours I will spend in the library, and the cups of coffee I will drink by the time I graduate. This experience has already encouraged me to forever maintain a curiosity for learning, by giving me the gift of seeing the world and my place in it – things I thought I understood well – as if for the first time.

Author photo by Emily Lu

Author photo by Emily Lu

About the author:

Kali Staniec is a sophomore in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences working towards a degree in Anthropology with a minor in Environmental Studies. By participating in the Guam and Palau course she hopes to gain new perspectives on the ways different cultures interact with the natural world.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies

Previously in this series:

Catching Up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Surfgrass Monitoring at Catalina
Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: The Robot Submarine
Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Diving into the Aquarium of the Pacific
USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: Moving Forward to Guam and Palau 2012
USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: Finding My Career Through This Course
USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: The Devaluation of Ecosystem Services
USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: Why USC Dornsife was the Right Decision For Me

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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