Inspired by Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University where he shared how auditing a calligraphy class while in college inspired him years later to add diverse fonts to Apple computers, we set out to visit classes around campus that make us think differently about what it means to be educated. This is one in a series of drop-ins.
On a rainy Saturday morning in October, a dedicated group of 15 undergraduate students embarked on a field trip to Key Largo, where they were transformed into dolphin researchers for a day as part of their marine biology class.
The students are enrolled in an online biology of marine mammals class taught by Jeremy Kiszka, a postdoctoral associate in the School of Environment, Arts and Society in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Throughout the semester, Kiszka encourages face-to-face engagement with his online students through a series of meetings, including a field trip to Dolphins Plus Oceanside, a dolphin research center and encounter facility in Key Largo.
Kiszka’s students spent the day outdoors learning about dolphin behavior patterns and participating in the facility’s ongoing research projects—all while powering through rain showers throughout the morning.
“Most of them have never been as close to marine mammals, so I see a lot of excitement,” Kiszka said of his students during the trip.
The students learned how to fill out behavioral ethogram charts, which researchers use to track the dolphins’ behaviors during natural playtime. They spent a half hour tracking behaviors like breeching and chasing spotted every 30 seconds on ethogram charts, and then they moved on to the next research activity.
They also learned how to track individual dolphins’ calls using underwater microphones called hydrophones. Using sound wave patterns collected by the hydrophones placed on each side of the pool, researchers can triangulate a dolphin’s specific location when it makes a sound. And using underwater cameras, the sounds recorded can be cross-referenced with video footage to determine, for example, if a dolphin makes a specific sound when doing an aggressive behavior.
“Now they have an idea on how to study the animals, and how to quantify their behavior,” Kiszka said.
In likely the favorite activity of the day, the students got to work directly with the dolphins to perform lexigram research, which assesses a dolphin’s ability to associate a learned behavior with a lexigram, or symbol.
Gracie the Dolphin knows nine lexigrams without needing any hints, and she once performed 59 behaviors in one training session before tiring of the activity. The students took part in one of these lexigram sessions by sitting with a trainer and recording data from each trial.
“This really proved how you can’t just focus on one area, how there’s a lot of other environmental factors that play along,” junior biology major Stephany Matallana said. Matallana wants to be a pediatrician, so she found that observing the dolphins’ interactions with each other and their environment can really apply to the possibility of researching children’s behaviors in the same way.
All of the data the students recorded throughout the day was saved and will be included in the Dolphins Plus database, as any data recorded is both valid and helpful for the researchers’ work.
“I think seeing the animals, interacting with them, doing hands-on research is crucial,” Kiszka said, explaining that taking part in the hands-on aspect of research can help reinforce and bring to life the research literature the students read in school.
While Kiszka’s main goal for the trip was to experience marine mammals up close, as well as to expose students to a type of marine mammal research that differs from his own research in the wild, he also hopes to use this experience to facilitate a debate in class concerning the controversy surrounding raising and researching marine animals in captivity.
“It’s easier to gather information while they’re in a place like this than in the wild, and you’re able to analyze them, and just know more information about them, so I think these are really helpful,” Matallana commented. “Obviously it has its debate and controversy, but I think the benefit outweighs the controversy.”
By the afternoon, the sky cleared up and the trip ended on a high note: At the end of the day, the dolphins bid the students adieu with a kiss.