GULFPORT -- A half dozen marine biology students from Ohio spent their morning in a classroom learning about sea turtles and terrapins, but by the afternoon they had wind in their hair and the spray of saltwater on their faces.
The students from Bowling Green State University are beta-testing a new college-credit course at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies this week. The intense, five-day course was developed specifically for them, said institute Director Moby Solangi.
Solangi would like to see other colleges take advantage of the IMMS Center for Marine Education and Research.
“We in Mississippi have something to offer that they don’t have,” Solangi said.
The school sends students for weeklong excursions each year, but they’ve always studied at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab. This year the BGSU juniors and seniors are staying at GCRL, but doing their field work at IMMS.
Their instructor, Shannon Finerty, did her post-doctoral research at IMMS in 2011 and knew she wanted to share her experiences at IMMS with her classes.
“It’s the first time we’ve done something of this magnitude,” Solangi said.
Finerty said students from Bowling Green have studied coastal ecology in years past, so this year she wanted them involved with marine mammal and turtles studies.
She said that not only do the students leave IMMS with valuable knowledge and experience, they have the chance to talk to professionals in the field, including a visiting researcher and lecturer.
Louis Herman, an expert in marine mammal behavior, cognition and language from the University of Hawaii, will talk to the Ohio students this week while he is visiting IMMS.
Finerty said her marine biology students were anxious to visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The proximity of IMMS to the Mississippi Sound gives students valuable hands-on opportunities not available to them in Ohio.
“We have the Great Lakes,” she said. “Not a lot of dolphins popping out of a lake.”
Senior Amanda Breckel was amazed that they were allowed to participate in a necropsy on a dolphin calf that was found stranded on a Gulfport beach months ago.
“They have a ton of questions,” IMMS biologist Heidi Zurawka said.
Solangi said IMMS programs make education fun for the next generation of marine biologists.
Even while the college students took notes during a lecture on sea turtles, a group of 100 preschool students from Wesley Christian Academy in Gulfport visited the pool room to get hands-on with various sea creatures. Stretching to reach over the side of the above-ground, glass-enclosed pools, they touched horseshoe crabs and stingrays as they circled around.