On Saturday, the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science at the University of Southern California will send nearly 30 researchers on an expedition to Guam and Palau. There they will study coastal and marine ecosystem management, the effects of climate change on coral reefs, the environmental impacts of a major defense buildup, and invasive and endangered species.

What makes this trip unique is that 24 of the researchers are USC Dornsife undergraduates with majors not only in the sciences, but also in the humanities and social sciences. The students will be American Academy of Underwater Sciences scientific-divers-in-training, and yet nearly all of them made their first-ever ocean SCUBA dive in April of this year.

This exciting trip is part of USC Dornsife’s Problems Without Passports (PWP) program, an ambitious approach to international experiential learning. When PWP started in 2007, I had the pleasure of leading one of the first courses, which studied environmental threats to the stability of societies both ancient and modern in southern Belize. Today, 20 USC Dornsife students are in Belize for the fourth edition of that course.

Dr. Jim Haw (left) and Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith return to the dock at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island after a successful dive testing capabilities for a Boeing underwater autonomous vehicle. Photo by Peterson of Boeing.

Last year my colleague Dr. Dave Ginsburg and I launched the Guam and Palau course, taking 14 students to Micronesia to measure coral reef health and biodiversity using SCUBA in typically 20 to 60 ft. of seawater. For many of those students it was a life-changing experience: new plans were made for graduate studies, study abroad and marine-coastal themed internships.

So, we are going back to Micronesia next week — with 24 students. In addition to Dave and I, the course is being led by two watermen with vast experience: Gerry Smith is USC’s dive safety officer (DSO) and a NAUI SCUBA instructor; Tom Carr is reserve captain in the Riverside County (CA) Sheriff’s Department and an instructor in their Underwater Search and Recovery Team.

Left: USC students from the 2010 Guam and Palau class. Photo by Gerry Smith.

In the posts that will soon follow, we will introduce the rationale for our focus on Guam and Palau — how these two Micronesian islands are similar yet fundamentally different from an environmental standpoint. Then you will meet some of the students in the course, who, in their own words, will share how we have prepared them for this expedition and their reactions to seeing tropical coral reefs and endangered habitats and species for the first times in their lives. These students, who can be expected to live until late in the 21st century, may eventually become witnesses to a world that was.

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 four-week 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 24-student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam, Palau and other Micronesian islands.

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.

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.