Students experienced the reef environment during all times of day, before and after sunrise, while conducting field studies on coral reef fishes. The class worked closely with the non-profit group CORALations and its director Mary Ann Lucking.
We joined CORALations in exploring the local coral farm with students from the Exploradoras Marinas (Marine Explorers), a local teen group, and in working with teachers and students at the Escuela Ecologica (Ecology School), an elementary school on Culebra that integrates ecological and environmental principles across its curriculum.
This experience was particularly rewarding for everyone involved, as Centre students demonstrated collecting and laboratory techniques and taught the local students about the relationship between parasites and their reef fish hosts.
Since visiting Culebra with the 2008 class, I've worked closely with CORALations and school administrators to establish a marine field and laboratory project that can be conducted by students at the eco school. This project was proposed to the Puerto Rico Department of Education as a cooperative educational venture among Centre College, CORALations, and the Escuela Ecologica and has been approved and funded by the Puerto Rico Secretary of Education. Students from this year's CentreTerm class were able to officially begin that collaboration. Now that the groundwork has been laid, this course has the potential to create service learning opportunities and internships for Centre students for years to come.
The impact this course has had in terms of shaping students' views on science and environmental issues, culture, career goals, and self-confidence reinforces my belief that the first year of college is the most critical year, and we need to offer first-year students the best and most interesting courses, including study abroad, that expose them to opportunities and help them make informed choices about their future at Centre and beyond. As Centre's Strategic Plan calls for more engaged and experiential learning and global citizenship, I think this course is ahead of the curve and will serve as a model for future courses at the College.
Puerto Rico: Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone
Caroline Stroup '12, Danville, Ky.
College itself is a life-changing experience where you have to go outside your comfort zone, especially the first year. There was harder work than I'd ever done, I was living with a person I didn't know, and I had to make new friends. But after all of that became routine and I was situated, I became very comfortable and it was all worth it.
For CentreTerm, I had the chance to again step out of my comfort zone. I was lucky to be one of the 15 students selected for the trip to Puerto Rico and Culebra, a small island off the coast. I heard a lot of "I hate you" and "You are so lucky" from other students. But this was not an ordinary vacation to Puerto Rico. What seems like all fun and games actually turned out to be a lot of (enjoyable) work.
Our mission was research with Professor Paul Sikkel on damselfish and parasites. Dr. Sikkel has already been on National Geographic for this kind of work. Our fieldwork on this trip, however, was work that had never been done before. Through this research, we were trying to determine whether fish that were wounded as a result of fighting with each other were more likely to be attacked by parasites and whether the degree of parasitism was also dependent on where the fish was placed on the reef. In order to do this, we caught fish and placed them in cages, which were left either on the edge of the reef or in the middle of it. After a few hours, we carefully removed the fish and filtered the parasites off of them for further examination. Although it was gross to see tiny organisms that suck the blood of fish and sometimes kill them, it was also one of the coolest things I've ever done.
The entire trip seemed to revolve around a similar idea. There were many things we didn't want to do or that seemed unpleasant. In the end, they turned out to be really amazing. For example, Sarah Bennett '12 recalls a snorkeling trip at night in which we removed the fish from the cages. She had to tread water for about 45 minutes with sea lice biting at her neck the whole time. "It was one of the most miserable things I've ever done," Sarah told me. "But when we turned off all the flashlights, we were in completely dark waters at midnight. I floated on my back to look at the stars, which was totally worth the sea lice."
Stephanie Woeste '12 had a similar experience when she went to release the fish back to the ocean. Although she would've rather gone to eat with everyone else than go snorkeling for the third time that day, she saw a stingray and had no regrets about the extra excursion.
Other times, we were all dodging jellyfish as we swam to see the coral reef farms being grown to restore local reefs. Although frightening, I actually touched the non-stinging side of the jelly. Also on this outing, we saw a prickly Sea Egg, a four-feet long barracuda and a sea turtle. All was worth the risk of being stung.
But the whole trip was not completely filled with bittersweet moments—a lot were just sweet. We went snorkeling everyday and were able to see some of the most beautiful, colorful fish I'd previously only seen on TV. In between our work, we were able to visit Flamenco Beach, ranked the second most beautiful beach in the world. I've never been to such a beautiful place with sand that white and water that blue. The night sky had very little light pollution; so we saw more stars clearly than I've ever seen in my life. Centre Term in Culebra was hands down the best experience of my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Dr. Sikkel told us he believed in learning by doing. After this experience, I completely agree with him. I've sat in classrooms taking notes for hours and couldn't tell you half of what I learned. But the trip to Puerto Rico is an experience I'll never forget. I learned so much about the behaviors of fish and other creatures of the Caribbean, the Puerto Rican culture, and the importance of coral reefs in the environment. I think I speak for everyone on the trip when I say we were put out of our comfort zones and because of that, we had a life changing experience we'll in no way forget.
Puerto Rico: Too Good to be True
Maggie Arnold '12, Nashville
All I could do was keep my fingers crossed. The chance to study in the Caribbean and travel to Puerto Rico was just too good to be true. Who didn't want to be in the class? With more than half of first-year students trying to register for it, I was preparing myself for disappointment. Little did I know that I'd be far from disappointed!
During the first week of class, we discussed the culture and ecology of the Caribbean, paying special attention to Puerto Rico and Dr. Sikkel's work on fish parasites. I came into the class having a limited knowledge of coral reefs from previous snorkeling and scuba-diving experience, but I soon realized I had much more to learn. As the week progressed, my anxiety increased along with my new understanding of the fish and coral reefs we would be working with.
Puerto Rico had a charm all its own. From the coral reefs of Culebra to the history of Old San Juan, the island captured my attention and refused to let go. Yet the trip was far from a vacation. We were responsible for building fish cages and documenting the types of fish and their locations along the reef. Most of the research required early and late night snorkeling. Between the numerous stars that covered the sky and the bioluminescent organisms that lit up with every movement of our fins, the snorkeling was truly an experience. I don't think I'll forget the squeals I heard come from a few mouths at the sight and touch of the fish!
While in Culebra, we also got the opportunity to work with CORALations, a local coral reef protection organization. We visited a local school and showed the children the parasites we had collected from our fish. They learned about coral reefs and how they have the power to conserve and protect the reefs around where they live. To see what a direct impact our work would have on the community and these natural wonders was an inspiration. I can honestly say that this class will truly be a highlight in my career at Centre. I owe my new appreciation and obligation to the reefs to Dr. Sikkel and the people working for CORALations. This class was as much about passion as it was about coral reefs, and consequently I learned as much about myself as I did the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico: A First Time for Everything!
Jordan Albright '12, Cincinnati
It was an honor to be part of such a wonderful experience. I knew the class would be life changing for me. Before leaving for Puerto Rico, everyone had to make a 15-minute presentation on a topic related to the Caribbean, and we also made fish traps. My topic was about how the Caribbean is affected by hurricanes. I rode with four of my other classmates to Nashville for departure, and we couldn't believe we were going to Puerto Rico.
I think I was the most excited because it was my first time ever flying on a plane. All of my classmates were taking pictures of me. They even took pictures of me handing my plane ticket to the flight attendant and walking onto the plane. We flew from Nashville to Miami to Puerto Rico. Once in Puerto Rico, from Old San Juan we took a taxi to Fajardo ferry dock and then to Culebra Island. We ate dinner at this little restaurant called El Patel, then headed to our villas. Our villas were not far from the restaurant, and the market was within walking distance. Finally our long day of traveling was complete.
The next morning I thought I was in a dream. I woke up to the most amazing view of the ocean right in front of my bed. After everyone got dressed, we walked into town for breakfast. The town was only a 15-minute walk from our villas. When we finally arrived at the café, I ordered some Puerto Rican pancakes. Those pancakes were so delicious and filling—I believe those were the thickest pancakes I've ever had! On our way back I spotted a starfish in the ocean, and I picked it up. The starfish felt weird—it was hard and had tiny tubes coming out of it. I then passed it around to my other classmates. After everyone examined the starfish, I gently placed it back into the water.
Back at our villas, it was time to pack up our snorkeling gear. At the reef, I took pictures of different colorful fish and coral with my underwater camera. One of our requirements for the class was to pick out any fish we wanted and make observations on its behavior at different times of the day. We also tried to catch fish with our fish traps. At first we were unsuccessful, but eventually we succeeded. Later that evening we ate dinner at a restaurant called Mamacita's, probably the most popular restaurant on the island.
One of my responsibilities was to transport our fish cages back and forth from the shore and put the fish traps underwater. I really enjoyed myself, and snorkeling was a great workout, too. Once we finished snorkeling, the class went to Flamenco Beach, considered the second most beautiful beach in the world by The Discovery Channel. It's known for its clear white sand that stretches across the entire bay. That's when I found a pond filled with little turtles. I was there with three classmates, and I tried to catch a turtle but was unsuccessful. Being there for hours, we were hungry and drained by the sun. The beach offered a lot of different grill venders. I ordered a shark on a stick, which actually tasted like high-quality fish, and it was really tender.
Later that day we went to an elementary school to show students the fish we caught and the parasites that were on them. I met a sixth grader named Michael who was bilingual. I asked him how he was able to speak English so well, and he told me that he learned how to speak English by watching American movies and playing video games. My class got a tour of the school and even got caught up in a jump rope game I'd never seen before. I had to jump over the rope, and each time I was successful, they would raise it higher. Well, eventually it was to the point where the rope got so high the Puerto Rican children were calling me "Spider-Man."
On this trip, my classmates and I really had to work together as a team. Another one of my responsibilities was to cut all the lids off the fish traps and put the fish into plastic bags. This maneuvering was all done in the middle of the ocean. It took a lot of muscle endurance to stay afloat above water. We also had to filter our parasite water for sampling. Once my classmates and I finished sampling our parasite water, we went to another reef. The reef we went to was amazing—and I was shocked by how friendly the fish were!
I wanted to see a shark so badly, and that's when Mary Ann with CORALations explained that sharks really don't come around the Caribbean. But I spotted a barracuda, and it was huge. Later that evening, Mary Ann told us about the history of Culebra. She explained how fish today are a lot smaller compared to fish decades ago and that pollution in the water over the years has caused a lot of fish to die. I also learned that a lot of coral reefs have suffered from bleaching, causing the coral to lose its beautiful color and look stressed. Boats that cast their anchors down also cause severe damage to the reefs.
Once we arrived at our hotel in Old San Juan to catch our plane back to Nashville, everyone had to present their fish observations and share how the trip affected them. We spent one day in Old San Juan and enjoyed historical sites. The next morning, my classmates and I left the hotel lobby and headed to the airport. As I took off on the plane, I said goodbye to Puerto Rico!
Puerto Rico: Hands-on learning is Priceless
Sarah Bennett '12, Louisville
One of the reasons I chose to attend Centre College was because it offers numerous travel abroad opportunities to upperclassmen. I've always been interested in traveling and experiencing different cultures. Naturally, I was more than thrilled to hear about the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico as a first-year student and even more so when I found out the course would grant me a chance to participate in unique, hands-on learning experiences. Because almost all of my peers I spoke with over the course of my fall semester expressed their hope to get into this class, I didn't expect to be one of the lucky few to actually have the ability to participate in such inimitable research experiments in Culebra, a small island off the coast of the Puerto Rican mainland, with Professor Sikkel. To my elation, I was chosen to be a member of the class. I decided when the news came that I would embrace every second of the opportunity I had been granted, and I'm more than excited that I did.
The classes leading up to our January departure from gray, frigid Danville, Kentucky, to sunny, warm Puerto Rico were extremely informative. We learned much about not only the fish we would be studying in Puerto Rico, but also the geography, flora and fauna, as well as the unique culture of the Puerto Rican people. I felt fully prepared to head off to the island with a surplus of knowledge and a hunger to learn even more.
The course gained life as soon as we stepped off the plane and into paradise. After a full day of travel we went to our villas and went to sleep only to wake up to the most beautiful place I've ever been. There was a balcony off the side of our villa that overlooked a stunning bay. I spent every second I could on that balcony. I ate, wrote in my journal, and fell asleep there every night. The most calming, peaceful place I've ever been was right there, outside my villa door, overlooking that crystal blue bay.
The trip wasn't all about tranquility and beautiful views, although I found both of those things everywhere I went. We came to Puerto Rico to do research on parasitic activity on damselfish. We generally snorkeled two or three times a day on various reefs across Culebra. We managed to construct cages for the fish, place the fish we caught in the cages, swim them to the reefs and retrieve them at specific times of the day. Timing was crucial during the placement and retrieval of these fish. Dawn and dusk were when we did most of our work on the reefs. That gave us most of the day to process our results, follow a fish of our choice, and learn more about Puerto Rican culture. We also had the wonderful opportunity to share our research and time with Puerto Rican children in a local school. The young students were amazingly bright eyed and beautifully excited to learn.
I learned more in this CentreTerm class through research and fieldwork than I could have learned in months in a classroom. Hands-on activities, teaching Puerto Rican children about our experiments, and having the opportunity to thrive in such a lively culture has done wonders for my education and myself in general. I learned an incredible amount about myself in the week I spent in Puerto Rico. Through this class, I now know that I have to have a job where I can do hands-on work. I've also found that I can persevere through physically draining work and see the pleasures and rewards hard work brings when it's finished.
After working with the young children in the schools in Puerto Rico, I know I want to work with kids in the future. I'm absolutely amazed that I could learn so much about myself in a matter of a week, but this course gave me that life-changing opportunity. I look forward to any and every opportunity Centre grants me to travel because this experience has more than changed my outlook on school and my future goals—it made those things better and more tangible.
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