Oberlin Students Engage in Experiential Learning at Sea

June 24, 2019
Erin Ulrich ’18
Three people leaning against each other, smiling on a boat. Photo.
Gail Johnson ’20 (far right) with SEA Semester students Photo credit: Courtesy of Sea Education Association/SEA Semester

Founded in 1971, Sea Education Association (SEA) is a nonprofit organization that provides college students with interdisciplinary learning opportunities through its study abroad program, SEA Semester.

Students enrolled in SEA Semester programs study ocean-related themes within the broader context of humans’ impact on the natural world.

This past spring semester, Mechteld (Mecky) Kuijpers ’20 conducted research aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot Pacific research brigantine. Through SEA Semester: Oceans and Climate, Kuijpers and a group of students from the United States and international colleges and universities sailed from New Zealand to Tahiti over the course of six weeks.

Throughout the semester, students explored the oceans’ role in climate change and conducted hands-on research, which included performing daily hydrocasts by taking water samples from 1,200 meters below the ocean’s surface.

Students enrolled in SEA Semester programs spend the first portion of their semesters at SEA’s campus in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. There, SEA students take courses that prepare them for what they will be studying more in-depth at sea. For instance, Kuijpers studied how Pacific Island nations are affected by climate change and how policies are designed to alleviate these risks.

A neuroscience major, Kuijpers says her experience influenced the way she thinks not just about climate change, but about scientific research more broadly. “I know that the experience I had with SEA will contribute to my life no matter where my studies take me,” she says. “Whether through adapting to a crazy sleep and work schedule, working on boats, engineering, or oceanic studies, I know that what SEA taught me will influence my future career for the better.”

Two people sitting sitting on the mast of a boat. Photo.
Mecky Kuijpers ’20 (left) aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans
Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Sea Education Association/SEA Semester

History major Mark Sheehan ’20 also studied with SEA Semester last spring. Through SEA Semester: Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean, Sheehan spent six weeks sailing throughout the Caribbean and studying its environment, culture, and history. Students met with local experts, completed field-based research, and visited the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic to study whale and marine mammal behavior.

During the six-week preparatory period at Woods Hole, Sheehan and his peers visited Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library and the University of Chicago’s Marine Biological Laboratory Library to examine archives from past Caribbean voyages.

“Being able to see other cultures firsthand was a terrific experience,” Sheehan says. “We were able to visit communities that were pretty far off the beaten path for foreign tourism. Visiting the tomb of Nanny of the Maroons, who is officially designated as a national hero of Jamaica, was particularly interesting.”

Sheehan says his experience with SEA Semester piqued his interest in maritime history, which he hopes to study more in depth as a graduate student.

Because SEA Semester programs are intended to immerse students in critical interdisciplinary thinking, Oberlin students apply with they learn in the field to their diverse academic interests. One such example is Sophie Davis ’16, who attributes her appreciation for international learning to her semester with SEA.

Learn more about SEA Semester.

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