Flying across the Pacific Ocean, as I lead a group of USC undergraduates to Micronesia, it seems as though little has changed since my days as a Master’s Degree candidate at the University of Guam Marine Laboratory. Sure, I’m older (I won’t say by how much!), have more gray in my hair, and have quite a bit more responsibilities as a college professor than the average 20-something year old graduate student…yet, I’m still excited as ever about scuba diving, and exploring and studying tropical coral reef environments. What’s even better is the knowledge that all 26 students enrolled in the 2013 Guam and Palau field program, which are sitting on the plane with me, are excited too. But who is to blame them? The students have been preparing for this hands-on field excursion for nearly 6 months! This is the fourth consecutive year the Guam and Palau program has been offered at USC, and based on what I have observed thus far is comprised of the most accomplished students I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

As we make our way towards the island of Guam, I can’t help but think how someone unfamiliar with this course might dismiss the various scientific diving skills we’ve worked so hard with our students to develop. For example, it’s not everyday you have the opportunity to work underwater amongst a 4-person buddy team to identify marine organisms along a 50 meter transect line. Yet, this is just one of a handful of essential diving protocols and survey activities that we practiced (in addition to a whole lot of lecture material we discussed) during our stay at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island. Having spent the last week honing these skills and a suite of others, I am confident that this year’s cohort of USC Scientific Divers in Training are up for the task of conducting environmental measurements and surveys in the field.

As my co-instructor Jim Haw explained in the first post of this series, our primary objectives on Guam are to investigate the effects of overfishing and coastal development on marine ecosystems, as well as the environmental impacts of military activities on coral reefs in Apra Harbor. During our stay, we will team up with our friend and colleague Brent Tibbatts, an aquatic biologist with the Guam Department of Agriculture and Wildlife, who has graciously agreed to lead our group on a new component to our course, a ‘ridge-to-reef’ hiking and snorkeling tour of Masso Watershed and Piti Bomb Holes, respectively. It’s sure to be an adventure unlike any of our students have ever experienced.

On the final leg of the 2013 field program, we will visit the Republic of Palau where our students will continue to assist Koror State Conservation and Law Enforcement officials in their ongoing efforts to monitor and survey the ecosystem health of the Ngederrak Reef Marine Protected Area and other nearby reef areas. Our students collect scientific data pertaining to the status of the Koror marine environment for the dual purpose of gaining hands-on experience collecting real-time survey data in the field, and of providing these data to the Koror State Department of Conservation in support of the UNESCO Rock Islands Southern Lagoon World Heritage site, as well as building upon other baseline coral reef ecosystem data.

Curricular enhancements to this year’s course include the development of a ‘policy network analysis’ (i.e., PNA) module (co-taught by our faculty colleague Kristen Weiss), which will allow students to quantitatively investigate complex environmental issues such as the relationship between natural resource stakeholders and their influence on coastal marine management decisions. Capitalizing on existing collaborations and contacts (and potentially establishing new ones) with Palauan scientists, resource managers, and stakeholders, new active learning exercises and policy decision-making tools will be established for this and other USC Environmental Studies field courses. Development of a PNA module within the Guam and Palau program will add further value to preparing our students as environmental and conservation management professionals, providing them with practical experience to work with generalist and specialist audiences, which is a skill they will surely face in their future careers.

After the 2013 Guam and Palau field course is completed, I will be staying in Palau for an additional week to collect brittle stars with my colleague Gordon Hendler, Echinoderm Curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. This is follow up visit after our visit last year in which I blogged about our experiences ‘re-discovering’ a brittle star last seem by Japanese scientists nearly 80 years ago. I will check in soon to report on our Palau experiences in the next week or so. Up next, a number of students will be blogging about their experiences and observations on Guam.

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 through the Environmental Studies Program. 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, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, 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:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins

A New Faculty Member on the Team

An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact

Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich

Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity

The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island