Students in Diane Tulipani's oceanography class recently ventured out on the York River for their lab.
On a weekday morning in mid-October, seven Thomas Nelson students and two professors boarded the College’s research vessel for a trip on the York River. It was the lab portion of one of professor Diane Tulipani’s oceanography classes.
The trip, which lasted about two hours and never ventured out of sight of shore, allowed students to conduct several hands-on activities to test the water’s salinity and dig up deep-sea sediments. It supplemented their classroom lessons.
“I think it closes the loop on their understanding, or it will help close the loop on their understanding,” said Tulipani, who joined the College in 2017. “You can hear somebody talk about it or I can show them videos of research that people do, but until they go out and try it for themselves and see the challenges, even with what appears to a simple piece of equipment, I think that’s a nice dimension to the lab.”
Stephen Wike, a student on the trip, agreed.
“The trip wasn't a textbook style of learning, and I know that being out on the water helped me understand and know the subject better,” he said.
That was the main reason for obtaining the 24-foot research vessel, which is called “Investigator.” The process began in 2015, and the vessel was launched about 18 months later in 2017. Grants from Dominion Energy, Langley Federal Credit Union and Thomas Nelson’s Educational Foundation totaling $32,000 made purchasing the boat and related scientific, navigation and safety equipment possible.
“It’s something that was always been in the back of my mind, but something that can only happen when you’ve got full-level administrative support for it,” said Geology Department Head Pete Berquist, who captains the boat any time it’s on the water.
Berquist said not many community colleges in the state or even the nation have research vessels. Thomas Nelson, which is becoming Virginia Peninsula Community College, has developed a reputation.
He and geology instructor Lynsey LeMay often attend conferences featuring other two-year schools from across the country, and the vessel often comes up in conversations.
“We are known as working at the school with the boat,” he said.
But it’s really about the students and their experiences.
“Field trip day was one of my highlights of the week,” Wike said. “They taught in a way that made me even more curious about wanting to learn more about the material.”
Tulipani said the hands-on aspect makes it more personal for students.
“Instead of handing them some data somebody else may have collected, it’s like ‘Okay, now you do the analysis,’” she said. “It might make them a little more invested in the project they’re actually being asked to do.”
These types of trips also give students insight on field work and research.
“I think of the vessel as a different platform or an extension of the learning platform that gets them away from shore,” Tulipani said. “You’re on a rocking boat and trying to collect your sample and keep your feet dry. It adds that dimension of this is really what we do as a scientist.”
Many of the benefits of having a research vessel were expected.
“We thought that students would, by having more hands-on experiences, get a deeper understanding, the information would be more accessible, they would learn it better,” Berquist said. “That has totally worked.”
Both other things they never could have expected.
“Some of them had never been on a boat before, or it appears they have never been on a boat before,” Tulipani said. “Giving them that experience I think is very valuable considering how much water we’re surrounded by here, and how integral it is.”
Berquist knows not everyone has access to a boat or has been out on the water, but still didn’t realize the effect it would have on some students.
“That was a part I was really fired up about, to give that exposure to students,” he said. “I kind of expected there would be a little bit of gain there, but there was no way I could anticipate how profound those experiences have been for some students.”
He said he has had students who are terrified of the water, and while no one is ever forced to go out on the vessel, he explains how safe it is, what exactly they will be doing, and the students are never put in harm’s way.
“Going out on the boat was a major, major personal challenge for (some), a major milestone,” he said. “It unlocked this deep, deep apprehension that, when as an educator, you can tap into stuff like that, these are creating true indelible moments for somebody that are going to stuck with them for the rest of the life.”
He noted the student might not remember the point of the trip but will never forget the experience.
“To be able to have that moment of overcoming that deep-seated fear, those are the best moments you could ever ask for; being able to tap into those deeply, deeply personal things that are now broadening their world, broadening their horizons,” he said.
On a recent trip, he noticed one student didn’t appear engaged, seemingly questioning why they were there in the first place. But that changed.
“At the end of that day, they were totally fired up,” he said, adding the student said it was the best thing they had ever done, and they had no idea they would enjoy it so much.
He often sees that engagement on subsequent trips.
“Some of it is because I think it’s tapping into a different style of learning,” he said. “I’ve seen that really flush out with other students. It’s a new-found confidence that they have.”
An asset such as the Investigator has allowed the College to work with other institutions, including the College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University.
“By having the boat, we’re able to support other kinds of research projects that students wouldn’t have ever had access to,” he said.
However, students at the College don’t have to take a trip to experience the benefits. The data collected often is used in other classes, as well. As a matter of fact, water samples and marine life samples collected in the handful of classes using the boat can be of use to more than 230 students, about 70 more than the number of students annually enrolled in science programs at the College.
“It has certainly expanded the real-world practical examples that we can provide the students,” Berquist said. “We feel really good about this being a valuable educational asset.”