Teaching oceanography at a landlocked university is next to impossible— Dr. Sean Cornell, professor of geography/earth science, has tried it elsewhere.
Thankfully, a fifty-year partnership with the Chincoteague Bay Field Station (CBFS) in Virginia allows Ship students to experience the ocean and all that comes with it.
“I never had the chance to take students to the ocean, but here I can put them on a boat in the ocean. They can feel the sand, taste the salt water. You can’t get that from a text book.”
Located in Wallops Island, Virginia, the field station has served thousands of students as an environmental education center since 1968. Partner schools, including Ship, take advantage of the field station’s educational and research opportunities that provide hands-on learning and access to equipment, facilities, marine life, and more that is not accessible on their campuses.
Dr. Nathan Thomas, associate professor of biology, has taught classes at Wallops Island since 2010. This past June, he again offered a three-week on-site ornithology class. “Students see how it works, see the information, feel it, and we talk about it,” he said. “It’s getting dirty, that’s what it’s all about.”
This October, the field station will celebrate fifty years of its continued collaboration with partner schools. In a time when these partnerships are dwindling nationwide, Cornell said the anniversary is a recognition of the last fifty years, but also an opportunity to look forward to the next fifty.
“We’re building new bonds and new relationships,” he said. “This is an investment in experience and research.”
In the late 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ushered in a scientific revolution, tasking American scientists with advancing the world, Cornell said. “When he said this, there was an explosion of research. In Pennsylvania, universities were trying to figure out how to prepare students for those jobs.”
Ten years later, a summer program started at two locations—Cape May, New Jersey, and Lewes, Delaware. By 1973, the operation moved to Wallops Island, Cornell said, and at that point, the organization partnered with NASA. A consortium was established to create collaborative programs and fund resources. Eleven of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education universities are partners with the field station. Faculty and students use the facility for field trips, research, and classes, working with educators across disciplines and from sister universities.
“A lot of these projects wouldn’t happen if we weren’t collaborating,” Cornell said. “The goals and strategies of the campuses are to come together for the common good.”
Pulling together a consortium without knowing if it will succeed, surviving location changes, and tweaking programming is a testament to how many people are invested in the field station, Thomas said. Nationally, a program like this is unusual, he added. “Many people don’t understand how valuable an asset like this is to our students, despite the cost. Students gain so much from this, walking away with an undergraduate degree knowing that this helped to shape them into the scientists they are.”
Sarah Bartles ’13-’16m was first introduced to the field station while conducting undergraduate research with Cornell. Recently, she joined the CBFS as its university and research coordinator. She works with State System universities and others to plan field trips and classes so faculty and students can use the field station’s equipment, labs, and research vessels.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s well worth it,” she said. “Ship is an outstanding example of how dedicated faculty are to the field station.”
It’s not unusual for someone to stop Dr. Pablo Delis, professor of biology, when he wears his CBFS t-shirt. In Florida, a man stopped Delis after recognizing his shirt and asked if Delis was from Pennsylvania. “This has been linked to the history of Pennsylvania for fifty years or more,” he said. “I meet a lot of people. The experience of their education and the intellectual growth with the consortium helped them find a love of nature.”
Bartles worked with Delis as an undergraduate to study what types of snakes, turtles, and amphibians lived on Wallops Island. “The field station was my first research experience, and I absolutely loved it,” she said. “That’s what I’ve done for ten years, and just started with the field station.”
In addition to undergraduate research, Delis teaches zoology and costal herpatology courses at CBFS. He said these classes would be impossible to teach elsewhere. “I’d have to use lab specimens from a jar. This is the most hands-on experience. It’s field biology. When you catch a fish there—catch it alive—and it’s jumping up and down in your hands, it allows students the first contact with their profession.”
Teddy Them ’08 credits Cornell with getting students in the field and sparking his own love for field work. Them is completing his post doc in Florida and has a professorship set up in the fall in South Carolina. “Field experience is so important when applying for grad school,” he said. “When you experience it, it makes it so much better. You bring the classroom experience to the field, then bring the field experience back to the classroom.”
As an exercise in one of his classes at the field station, Cornell provides students with GPS coordinates from about ten years prior and charges them with finding the location. After walking around for some time, students follow the coordinates to the shoreline. Perplexed, they claim they can’t find it, so the coordinates must be wrong.
“Well, it’s been eaten (by shoreline erosion),” he said. “Those are the kinds of impactful moments. It’s scary, but it’s also real.”
Cornell has championed the field station since he began work there in 2006. In fact, he accepted an offer to teach at Ship over another university because of the partnership with CBFS. At his previous university, his only resources were video, textbooks, and a waveless pool. At the field station, he can do lab activities on-site, identify live organisms, study sediments, sample pH levels, or explore different coastal environments.
“About a third of my students have not seen the ocean,” Cornell said. “It’s not the beach experience with the boardwalk and the saltwater taffy. It’s going to see the environment without disturbance.”
Additionally, the field station offers faculty and students an opportunity to work with more than $600,000 worth of equipment that isn’t available on their campus. “They learn a powerful boat is important,” Delis said. “We’re traveling twenty, thirty, forty miles off shore. They learn the logistics and equipment necessary to plan that trip.”
Dr. Adrienne Oakley, assistant professor of geology and marine science at Kutztown University, said these experiences are huge for her students. “This is not equipment we have on campus. This is hundreds and thousands of dollars of equipment they get to use as undergrads,” she said. “It’s hands on, in the field. They get to manipulate data, do amazing dives, and take quizzes underwater.”
These experiences are significant to students as they see classroom concepts come to life. For one class, Oakley’s students collected specimens from flooded streets. “It’s meaningful because they can connect it to the real world. We were dragging nets through the road catching eels and fish during spring tide,” she said. “Hey, that’s sea level rise and climate change.”
Climate change was a national focus in the early 2000s when Them attended Ship. His hands-on classes with Cornell allowed him to touch organisms and see how they were affected by the earth. “We put our hands in the sand or mud, went kayaking in the bay. It’s a necessary component.”
And it’s a component he now uses in his own classes. In his history of geology course, he takes students camping. “It’s really nice having students who have never gone camping before. You see the light bulb go off. They think about things they hadn’t considered before.”
There are fifteen students in Thomas’ field class—the max who can fit in a van for transport—from several universities. In addition to Ship students, the classes includes people from Millersville, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, and Bloomsburg, to name a few.
“I actually had experiences here as an undergraduate from IUP,” he said. “The research experience shaped me. I worked as a field assistant. …That attracted me to Ship.”
CBFS provides students with classes that might not be offered at their home institution, creating opportunities to network and research with faculty and students from other campuses. “Having an experience with a faculty member who is so passionate about a subject while they’re in the field is big. Students feel the same thing—it’s contagious,” he said.
That’s how Oakley and Joao Silveira Meyers, a graduate student in geoenvironmental studies, started their research collaboration. Silveira took a class at the field station last summer and stayed on for Oakley’s course, working with her to develop a thesis. Oakley co-advised Silveira Meyers’ work with Cornell.
“As he created his thesis, he approached me with a plan,” she said. “I get to experience students from other universities and get to collaborate with faculty while doing the research (at the field station).”
Silveira Meyers earned his undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering in Brazil. He said he did work in oceanography, but there wasn’t a facility like CBFS. “Most of my work was in class and in theory. I wanted to learn how to do field work and how to collect samples.”
Much of the research occurred at CBFS, but Silveira Meyers also traveled to Kutztown to meet with Oakley. When Silveira Meyers presented his research at the end of spring semester, Oakley traveled to Ship to watch it. “It was a great advantage to partner with students and faculty from another university,” he said. “It would not be possible without this partnership.”
Looking to the Future
In October, the field station will invite alumni, faculty, and stakeholders to Wallops Island to celebrate the fifty-year partnership. Bartles is in the process of organizing a weekend of events.
“We want them to come down and see what we do at the field station. We’ll highlight our professors and take people out on guided tours at sites or on boats,” she said. “They’ll see what we’re working on at the field station and why it’s important.”
The field station’s significance cannot be overlooked. “We need to be unique,” Thomas said. “In a challenging world where we’re competing for students on a regular basis, this gives us an opportunity to be unique.”
The opportunity for this level of field work as an undergraduate is unparalleled, according to Oakley. “There are tons of field stations throughout the country, but almost all are associated with research universities and almost all are grad focused. The fact is, 90 percent or more of this is with undergraduates,” she said. “The benefit to current students is almost unquantifiable. Our students are so far ahead of even students situated on the coast, because most of that work is for grad students.”
The CBFS attracts students and faculty to State System schools, she added. “I came from the University of Hawaii. It’s why I came to Kutztown. It’s why Sean (Cornell) came to Shippensburg.”
This partnership is about the future. “Education is never about short-term outcomes. It’s about longterm outcomes, successes, and values,” Delis said. “We have to invest and support this institution now in order to see the tremendous and valuable return on our investment.”
“We’re going to get that investment back tenfold.”