RCC-VIMS partnership plunges students into fieldwork

Developed with the serious student of marine biology in mind, Rappahannock Community College’s summer “Coastal Ecology” course culminated with two weeks of intensive field work at the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute for Marine Sciences (VIMS) facility at Gloucester Point. This portion of the course included a day on the water, in the VIMS research vessel Tidewater; it was preceded by three weeks of online academic work.

Dr. Troy Tuckey of VIMS, seen here on the research vessel Tidewater, sorts just-netted marine life by species so that students of RCC’s “Coastal Ecology” course can identify, count, and measure them.

Dr. Troy Tuckey of VIMS, seen here on the research vessel Tidewater, sorts just-netted marine life by species so that students of RCC’s “Coastal Ecology” course can identify, count, and measure them.

RCC biology instructor Lisa Tuckey, who co-developed “Coastal Ecology” with VIMS’s Dr. Diane Tulipani (an RCC adjunct instructor since Fall 2013), describes it as “a field-based biology course which explores beach, salt marsh, and estuarine ecosystems by observing and sampling local coastal plants and animals while analyzing the dynamics of coastal community structure and function. We worked together,” she says, “to create … a first-class transfer course.” Since many RCC students hope to major in one of the sciences when they transfer to a four-year school, “Coastal Ecology” provides a good starting point, “especially since it focuses on our local environment, and therefore local issues,” Tuckey notes.

Tulipani, who was the course’s principal instructor, said that the topics she covered included coastal plate tectonics, physical forces of water, chemical properties of seawater, coastal habitats and organisms, and the impact of humans on coastal ecosystems. In addition, students were required to present a topic from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s annual “State of the Bay” report.

In the lab, Tulipani’s students compared the densities of salt and fresh water; tested the pH level of common household chemicals that might end up in the Bay; ran computer simulations of a marine-protected area; and examined water and sediment flow. Combining this lab work with field studies of plant distribution gave them data for an analysis indicating how all these would affect the shoreline.

During the trip on the Tidewater, says Tulipani, “we sampled at two upriver stations and two stations at the mouth of the York River. At each station we did a five-minute trawl to collect a variety of species of fish for the students to identify, count, and measure, as well as a one-minute plankton tow. Also at each station, students used a water quality meter to measure temperature, dissolved oxygen, and salinity, and a Secchi disk to determine the depth of water clarity.”

“I certainly hope this course continues to be offered at RCC,” says Tulipani, “since it provides a unique perspective and opportunity to experience various approaches and aspects of marine science research focused on the Chesapeake Bay. Living within the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, it is important that local residents become familiar with how this specific ecosystem influences a great percentage of their daily lives … from the food they eat, the safety of their homes, and local weather conditions to the health of the water resources used for recreation and commercial purposes.”

“The experience was great for both students and instructors,” affirms Tuckey. “The VIMS faculty and staff [including guest lecturers Karen Duhring of VIMS’s Center for Coastal Resource Management, and Dr. Troy Tuckey of its fisheries science department], facilities, and boat crew were wonderful to work with, and they provided an excellent learning experience for the RCC students. We are very appreciative of everything that VIMS did” to help RCC implement this one-of-a-kind partnership in Virginia.