By Jacelyn Wedman
I remember attending field trips in public school. My classes visited the museum, the zoo, national monuments, and many more locations I don’t remember. When my school district cut funding for field trips, I thought the end of my school-sanctioned adventures had come.
But then, as a college junior, I found marine biology. I was scrolling through Facebook one night, aimlessly watching cute dog videos and smirking at funny memes when my thumb landed on an article for Simpson University’s May-term Marine Biology class.
I have always been interested in marine biology. As a freshman in high school, I wanted to enter the field, but settled for BBC documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. I knew Simpson’s marine biology class took a weeklong field trip, and since I was already interested in the field and needed a lab credit, I registered for the class the next day.
The May-term class was only in session for three weeks. The first two weeks consisted of intense class-time: four hours every day, Monday through Saturday. As the hours passed, we learned about ocean currents, taxonomic classification of marine animals, and marine communities. By the end of the second week, I could — with some prompting — give the taxonomic name of a horseshoe crab, as well as its habitat and environment.
Two weeks and three tests later, we packed up for the highlight of the class: the weeklong field trip to the Humboldt coast. All five students admitted that the prospect of the field trip persuaded them to take the class.
We were a strange group: two biology majors, two business majors, and an English/communication major, all learning at different rates and interested in different aspects of the class. The biology majors were excited to collect and study samples. Those of us outside the department were looking forward to the adventure.
The summer class was offered as both an introductory course and an upper-division biology elective. Those of us taking the introductory course in order to satisfy our lab requirement — Adam Bynum, Ethan Wulfestieg, and me — attended class from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday to Saturday. On top of this shared class time, the biology majors — Kristopher “KC” Kranich and Jessica Ayabe — were scheduled for an extra two hours of class in the afternoon, from 1 to 3 p.m. By the 12th day of intensive lecture and study, every student was itching for adventure.
As in most classes, we sat next to the people we knew the most, interacted only when necessary, and weren’t forced to pair up with classmates we didn’t know.
The field trip changed that. Even while talking in class about the upcoming trip, we began to grow closer as a team, not just as classmates. When we arrived at our ‘50s-themed cabin in Trinidad, Calif., we felt unified, or at least resigned to our fate of spending a week sharing one bathroom.
Dr. David Rice, assistant professor of biology, had sent a packing list, as well as a screenshot of the weather in Trinidad for the week we would be there. As the date drew closer, I looked at my own weather app. My app forecasted rain the entire week, opposite of the screenshot.
It was clear that about half of the class — Dr. Rice and his wife, Diana, included — hadn’t checked the updated weather, trusting the screenshot. Only Wulfestieg, Kranich and I brought rain-proof gear.
All but one adventure during the week was punctuated by rain. Those of us with rain jackets, boots, or other waterproof gear were comfortable — even happy — to be adventuring in a drizzle. As we picked through rocks or fished through plankton samples, those wearing only sweaters and tennis shoes checked their phones for the time, waiting for Dr. Rice to announce that it was time to head back to the house.
Because I was warm, dry, and itching for adventure, I took my time getting to and from the vans we used for transportation. While Dr. Rice and Kranich hurried ahead, I hung back, taking photos and ignoring shouts of “Hurry up, gang!”
Our adventures along the Northern California coast included hours of lab time at the Humboldt State University (HSU) marine lab. Dr. Rice and Kranich showed the most interest in hunting for life on wet-mount microscope slides. While they searched, Ayabe, Bynum, Wulfestieg and I inspected the larger creatures we had caught, then preserved in formaldehyde.
We collected samples at different locations along the coast, including Trinidad Beach and Patrick’s Point. We learned that the differences are vast: different terrain, different weather, different specimens, different experience.
Exploring beaches only comprised half of the planned adventures. A pontoon boat excursion, kayaking/whale watching trip, and adventure to the Redwoods made up the week’s itinerary. Because of the constant rain and wind, the kayak expedition was canceled, so we embarked on a field trip within a field trip, traveling to HSU’s main campus for a tour of their marine biology department.
The pontoon boat excursion was a highlight for the majority of the class. The HSU marine lab staff piloted the boat in Humboldt Bay and aided us in conducting two separate trawls and a benthic grab. The first trawl was intended for larger sea creatures, like fish and crab, while we second trawl would catch much smaller animals, like plankton. The benthic grab (essentially a metal bucket with jaws) grabbed sediment and — hopefully — critters with it. None were very successful, but doing the things we had learned about in class was both fun and rewarding.
My favorite part of the trip was purely the adventure. Most of the time, Dr. Rice was the only one who knew the plan, and he went to bed hours before the rest of us, telling us nothing regarding the plan for the following day. Our class adapted, preparing for any and all possibilities.
It was a challenge for me to “go with the flow,” learning how to sleep at night while not knowing what was in store the next morning. By the end of the week, I almost looked forward to the unknown adventure that awaited us the next day.
After lab and adventure time was over, we piled in the vans and headed back to our one-bathroom cottage. We ate dinner together, sitting seven around a table meant for six, elbows touching as we ate tacos, burgers, spaghetti.
Once dinner was cleaned up, dishes washed and leftovers eaten by Kranich, Wulfestieg, and Dr. Rice, we had some free time to debrief the day, play never-ending rounds of Uno, and play Legend of Zelda on Wulfestieg’s Nintendo Switch.
As I unpacked my sea-salt-soaked suitcase, I realized that this class was more like a science camp than a lab requirement. I was able to experience the lessons I learned in the classroom. As a believer in experiential education, I maintain that doing things provides a better learning experience than taking tests on things.
This class allowed five students to fulfill Simpson’s science lab requirement without sitting in a crowded classroom for 15 weeks. It allowed us to poke, prod, and collect the creatures we learned about, not just recite the taxonomic name and gaze at them through a jar of formaldehyde. It allowed us to fulfill a lab requirement by embarking on an adventure, getting our feet wet, and exploring science firsthand in the field. It was a memorable opportunity.
Learn more about Simpson University’s Science Department at simpsonu.edu/science.
About the author:
Jacelyn Wedman is a senior English and Communication major at Simpson University. She is the Executive Vice President of Simpson’s student government for the 2019-20 academic year. When she isn’t in meetings or in class, Wedman likes to adventure outdoors, watch “The Office,” and tell stories.
Top photo: Simpson University students participate in a May-term marine biology course. From left, Kristopher “KC” Kranich, Jacelyn Wedman, Jessica Ayabe, Adam Bynum, and Ethan Wulfestieg.