Marine ecology class returns to Whatcom

By: Kelly Rockey

tudents in Intertidal Marine Ecology find animals such as this purple sea star, or Pisaster ochraceus, on the field trips they take to explore local marine life. Photo by Jordan Gardner.
Students in Intertidal Marine Ecology find animals such as this purple sea star, or Pisaster ochraceus, on the field trips they take to explore local marine life. Photo by Jordan Gardner.

After being discontinued ten years ago, Whatcom Community College once again offered its students a course in marine biology this spring, Intertidal Marine Ecology.

Taught by Doreen Dewell, Biology 130 gives the class a chance to study the diverse coastal marine life in the Bellingham area, in a hands-on manner.

“I want students to appreciate the marine environment,” said Dewell, adding that she believes it is important for her students to see natural world first-hand.

Dewell said the course focuses on “local intertidal diversity” and the interactions between marine plants and animals. It includes a total of five field trips to different marine locations in the Bellingham area as well as class lectures.

“We try to experience the intertidal diversity, really, and have an understanding of the interactions between the organisms,” Dewell said. “There are a huge variety of adaptations, and to understand that and learn [them], it’s obviously best to observe the real thing.”

Students in the class said they enjoy the learning style.

“We are not just given source material and information, but [we see] evidence of that material with real world examples,” said Kyle McAllister, a student in the class. “The idea of the ecosystem and the interactions between different species is really interesting; there is a complex and delicate balance that needs to be reached.”

The class recently traveled to Cherry Point in Blaine to study the local marine life at low tide. Dewell said she had her students collect abiotic or “non-living” data, testing the water for salinity, pH, temperature, and phosphate levels. They also observed the various living species in the area.

“They were looking under the cobble [stone], and they found all sorts of things we haven’t seen before. This was a different habitat from the other field trips,” said Dewell. “We did find a nice soft jellyfish, and we weren’t expecting to get that.”

She added that some of the more common native species they have found on previous field trips included purple sea stars, barnacles, hermit crabs, mussels, clams and sea urchins.

Other field trip destinations included Birch Bay, Marine Park in Fairhaven, and the Marine Life Center on Bellingham Bay. They will be going on their final trip to Larrabee State Park June 13.

“The field trips are great for identifying sea life,” said student Holden Miller, who played a vital role in bringing the course back to Whatcom. “I love going back to the sights now, knowing where to look and what I might expect to find.”

The course curriculum combines lecture-based material with the hands-on experience from field trips, Dewell said.

“It’s a more personal way of learning. They are internalizing the experience better because it is happening to them. They are there, in the moment,” Dewell said, adding that it is far more beneficial to study living creatures in their natural habitat than dead species in a lab.

The in-class material also incorporates the effects of global warming and pollution on the marine environment, which is a topic that McAllister said he is concerned about.

“Basically I have learned that the sky is falling. Even with my interest in marine biology, my level of awareness is pretty low,” he said. “There is a concerted effort by a lot of individuals that gets overlooked by a majority of people, [due to] our inability to even think about the consequences of ocean dumping.”

Dewell said she she would like to incorporate longer field trips in the future to some more distant areas, but funding for such trips could be difficult to find.

The revival of the course is due to some advocating by Dewell and Miller, who was interested in bringing it back, though it was no easy task, Dewell said.

It was originally discontinued after failing to meet enrollment standards, but Dewell said she hopes this new resurgence in interest will keep the course available for years to come.

“In the fall, I was in Doug McKeever’s oceanography class, and he was the one who turned me on to petitioning for a new marine biology or ecology class. He told me who to talk to and I was eventually connected with Doreen. After showing her that students were interested, she began the long process of setting up the class,” Miller said.


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