‘Duke Trip’ Immerses Students in Field Ecology

October 22, 2010

It is 9:00 on a warmer-than-usual October evening. The sea air is damp and waves are crashing on the beach as the tide comes in. Dusk has fallen and the stars are shining brilliantly, but not as brilliantly as the headlamps and flashlights of 26 students combing the southern North Carolina beach.

These Mary Baldwin University ecology students — armed with buckets, gloves, timers, and flashlights — are not searching for buried treasure or sea turtle eggs. They are estimating Atlantic Beach’s ghost crab population on the first night of a biennial trip to Duke University Marine Lab. The population count is just one of the many field work activities incorporated in the “Duke Trip.”

When Eric Jones, associate professor of biology, began teaching ecology at Mary Baldwin in 1988, he decided to incorporate something new — a four-day field trip to Duke University Marine Lab (DUML) in Beaufort, NC.

“Going down to Duke gave us the opportunity to see many habitats that were unavailable in the mountains of Virginia, while giving the students total immersion in the joys and challenges of field work,” Jones said.

The trip — which covers everything from estimating the ghost crab population to trawling in the open ocean to testing water samples — features a strong research component. During four days on the island, each student is required to design and execute several mini-research projects, the best of which they present in a student symposium on the final night.

“I find it to be a highly effective tool for teaching the students about how to approach a new environment and how to design and conduct experiments,” said Paul Callo, associate professor of biology, who now leads the ecology class. “It teaches scientific thinking rather than merely how to follow directions.”

Seniors Dreama Melton-Scheffer and Morgan Sexton used the ghost crabs they collected the first night to test carbon dioxide consumption in normal and stressed environments.

“We got to take a hands-on approach which made things real, compared to looking at book illustrations and lectures,” Melton-Scheffer said. “I gained a much better sense of how everything works together in an ecosystem that is not like one found here in the mountains.”

Thanks to spending the better part of four days conducting research and eating meals together the Duke trip strengthens the bonds of the student and faculty community. Each member of the biology faculty takes part in the lessons — associate professors of biology, Lundy Pentz and Paul Deeble take the lead in the lab, leading projects ranging from physiology to microbiology, Deeble, along with Jones and Callo, also lead expeditions on and around the island exploring the native flora and fauna.

“Everything about the lab creates a family environment,” said Sylvester ‘Sly’ Murray, head cook at the lab. “In the 35 years I’ve been here, I have noticed that there seem to be a lot more women in the marine science field. With Mary Baldwin, you have young, young women [PEG students] working side by side with older women [traditional and Baldwin Online and Adult Programs students] and that adds to the diversity. I love that about Mary Baldwin.”

The unique learning experience takes a lot of time and effort to pull off, but what keeps them coming back year after year is the one-of-a-kind experience it provides.

“I got an appreciation and understanding for what biologist do out in the field,” said Jas Pitts, ’12. “We were always outside or setting up equipment or working in the lab. It was a bit exhausting, but rewarding, because every day I felt like I had at least accomplished, learned, or experienced something new.”