Floating education offers foreign experiences

(11-21-2011)

By: Mariah Pepe

Hiking rainforests, snorkeling along a coast, and glimpsing a tiger in the wild while cruising the seven seas provides exotic opportunities for students and professors alike.

During the summer 2010 and spring 2011 semesters, Dr. Tim Armstrong, Adams State College professor of biology and earth science, taught courses aboard a converted cruise ship with the Semester at Sea Program. The experience motivated him to share his experiences and encourage Adams State faculty and staff to apply for the same type of adventure.

The "floating college," complete with professors, librarians, student support staff, and deans, offers students and professors the opportunity to study abroad in a variety of countries in one semester. Armstrong lauded the program because it integrated formal and unique opportunities for experiential learning. While aboard, he taught general biology, global ecology, and environmental science.

Each day while traveling, classes met regularly. Besides the restrictions of being aboard a ship, Semester at Sea provided students with an average college experience filled with research papers, readings, and tests. Unlike the typical campus, upon reaching a port, six to seven hundred students would disappear into the country.

Each stop averaged between one to seven days in a port. Students and faculty would go on trips and take part in activities related to their classes. Students were responsible for participating in a certain number of field practica for each class they took.

It was easy for Armstrong to plan the activities thanks to all of the "crazy critters" around. He said it was good for the biologist students to "be able to see the rainforests and go snorkeling, rather than simply looking at pictures." The activities provided students a taste of how to apply their studies in the real world. Although the courses were hard to plan, the cultural experiences and activities were easy to integrate considering how many of the students had never snorkeled or traveled abroad before.

Armstrong says he saw many amazing things abroad. India was his favorite country to visit because of the opportunity to visit Ranthambore National Park, a place he has been pinning to see for 35 years. Ranthambore is a prime location to see tigers, although chances of actually seeing one are slim. Armstrong's group of twenty lucked out and witnessed a tiger during their visit. With delight, Armstrong reminisced marveling about the big cat.

The wildlife off the coast of South Africa amazed Armstrong. In the cold water, a school of fish floundered at the surface as a large flock of albatross feasted. Armstrong cancelled his planned lecture in ecology class in order to watch the birds feed and talk about seabird ecology on the deck. Armstrong says it was opportunities like these that make the program so successful.

Meeting diverse people is another benefit of the program. The ship brings together students from across the United States and the world. In each country, participants interacted with native people. Armstrong recalls students eagerly questioning their female, Muslim tour guide about being a working woman in the Muslim world while in Egypt. The presence of local tour guides allowed the group to learn about the history that defined and developed the countries they visited. Furthermore, Armstrong excitedly explained how Sandra Day O'Connor joined the voyage, and he ate popcorn with her late one night as the group watched movies. "Traveling forms the best of friendships," Armstrong said.

Entering some of the world's greatest cities by sea, Armstrong described as remarkable," and an opportunity not many experience. He would definitely return to the program for a summer semester because of the summer session's shorter length, but he admits that it was hard to be away for four months during the spring of 2010.

At sea, Internet access is limited, and students were unable to constantly contact home and use social networking websites. Instead, students interacted with their professors and each other. Unfortunately, this also meant there was little knowledge of current events onboard.

Available to all majors, Armstrong found the program particularly beneficial to biology students and believes it could benefit art, music, and other disciplines to experience their interests firsthand. The program is also available for life-long learners of any age.

The Semester at Sea Program provided Armstrong with great memories, stories, and pictures and he encourages others to take advantage of the opportunity. Armstrong has additional information about the program for those interested.