Recently I had the privilege of joining visitors from around North Carolina on a tour of the marine science laboratories on our CREST Research Campus. During the tour, I was able to help these guests from business and local government understand how we are helping today’s students prepare for high-tech and scientific careers.
It’s not just the professors who are doing serious science here; students at every level, from kindergartners to university graduate students, are gaining hands-on experience with research tools and techniques. That, in turn, is helping our graduates become immediately employable.
In the course of a year, around 200 UNCW graduate students and 900 undergrads have an opportunity to do significant research in our laboratories, aboard our research vessels, and in other field environments such as the salt marshes and sound adjacent to our campus. The technical skills they learn here have proven to be especially valued by employers when these students enter the work force.
Younger students are getting similar opportunities through the UNCW MarineQuest summer camps and classroom experiences that we offer at the pre-K, elementary and secondary school levels. That includes a special relationship with the Marine Science Academy at Ashley High School, an advanced program that’s open to high school students from throughout New Hanover County.
Of those 900 undergraduates I mentioned, a majority visit the labs and field research areas here during field trips from their science classes on UNCW’s main campus. But of that number, about 200 of them do “very intensive work,” collaborating closely with our faculty researchers, according to Martin Posey, Ph.D., director of UNCW’s Center for Marine Science, which is part of the CREST Research Campus.
Those undergraduates, as well as graduate students in many different majors, are working in such areas as fisheries and aquaculture, culturing marine microorganisms and extracting useful chemicals from them, and often working directly with industry and municipalities. For example, Posey explained, some are studying how oyster beds can help to stabilize shorelines against erosion, protecting property on land. In the course of their course work, they are working in the marshes, getting hands wet and feet muddy, building structures and monitoring them over time. “This is an actual business application,” he points out, that has immediate benefits in the real world.
Another example he mentioned is a group of UNCW graduates “who are being cited for their work” in North Carolina’s $39 million blue crab fishery.
I’m proud to say that, by contrast with some colleges and universities, we are giving our students the chance to do real science, routinely, in a relevant hands-on setting. In Posey’s words, “This is one of the most important reasons we’re here.”
The MarineQuest program, which UNCW began in 1980, “serves as a pipeline between the community and the university,” said Sue Kezios, Ph.D. She is director of MarineQuest and UNCW’s other youth programs. Over the past 36 years, more than 100,000 kindergarten-through-12th grade students have participated, including about 10,000 already this school year. About a third of them come to campus for one of our summer camp programs, or with classes that visit our labs for a day or more of marine science during the school year.
Not everyone comes to our campus. For teachers who aren’t able to bring their students here, we can bring MarineQuest to their schools. The “Coast to Classroom” program will set up a series of rotation stations in a school’s common area, such as touch tanks that teach about predator-prey relationships, or a chance to examine tiny plankton under a microscope, or skulls of various sea creatures that demonstrate different feeding strategies. Then in each 45-minute period, up to 50 students can share in the experience.
Another traveling program is called “Traveling through Trash.” This uses a full-sized replica of a right whale as a mobile classroom to teach students about the problem of plastic debris in the ocean. Supported by a federal grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this has touched 8,000 students so far this year, many of them in impoverished rural communities. Instructors are finding they can bridge a cultural divide to help young people understand the relationship between littering in their communities and harm to whales, turtles and other sea life.
On our campus, though, is where kids do the most rigorous science. “We focus on things they wouldn’t have a chance to do in their classroom,” Kezios said. This spring, for example, middle school students are learning how marine algae is used to produce bio-diesel for fuel. Older students in some of MarineQuest’s more intensive summer programs learn the basics of research diving and work with remotely operated robotic submersibles. And the very smallest, as young as 4 years old, are studying the life cycles of fish, from eggs through hatchlings and “fry” to adults. We call that particular program, not surprisingly, “Small Fry.”
The students who are diving are looking for unusual events on reefs and other marine habitats, and bringing back specimens for analysis. Sophisticated techniques such as protein extraction and cell culturing, the same things that university researchers are doing, are part of these teenagers’ experience. “They are getting a meaningful engagement in modern marine science,” Kezios says, “using the tools and the equipment of professional scientists.”
MarineQuest participants don’t see themselves “as little kids at camp,” she added. “Even our youngest students see themselves as budding scientists.”
Unlike some summer camps, which feature teenage counselors and a focus on arts and crafts, MarineQuest typically uses instructors who are working on master’s degrees, high-tech equipment and real academic rigor.
A young woman who had been through MarineQuest while in high school recently emailed Kezios from the College of William and Mary, where she is studying marine science. Because of her experience here, “She was so far ahead of her peers that she was selected to participate in an Antarctic research cruise.”
A similar experience happened to a recent graduate of Ashley High School’s Marine Science Academy. As that program’s director and lead teacher Sandie Cecelski explained, while working in our labs while still in high school, the student learned skills that qualified him for a paid internship, working as a lab assistant to one of our researchers, Andrea Bourdelais, Ph.D. “Because of the experience of being in the academy and working with professors,” Cecelski said, the UNCW freshman was qualified for a job that few could aspire to at his age.
The 20 or so juniors and seniors in the Ashley program start their experience at MarineQuest, in an intensive week that includes robotics, field sampling and shipboard data collection. Then, between UNCW’s main campus, the labs at Crest Research Park, and Cape Fear Community College’s Marine Technology program, “These students are exposed to cutting-edge ocean research,” Cecelski said, and are given the opportunity to become certified SCUBA divers while they’re at it.
During the year they take two research cruises, one on UNCW’s RV Seahawk in the ocean or sound, and one on CFCC’s RV MarTech in the Cape Fear River. All are expected to prepare analytical research papers comparing their data on such issues as water chemistry and clarity, and what sorts of microorganisms and fish are found, in the two different environments.
And in their time on our campus, they are learning how to use advanced technology like electron microscopes. “For high school students to even touch a piece of equipment like that is very rare,” Cecelski said.
It may be rare on a national scale, but that sort of hands-on, sophisticated work is common here for students of all ages and levels of experience.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a frontrunner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.
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