Exploring biology beyond the classroom: Off-campus courses at Ole Miss provide students with hands-on opportunities at biodiversity sites


Published on 08/03/2022 |
from the University of Mississippi

Biology students at University of Mississippi broaden their horizons by taking courses in the Caribbean, Hawaiiand Arizonataught by professors Brice Noonan, Eric Homand Jason Hoeksema.

“The Department of Biology is fortunate to have a number of off-campus opportunities that allow students to explore topics as diverse as desert biodiversity in southwestern Arizona and the interaction of biology and society in Hawaii,” said Noonan, vice chair and adjunct professor of biology.

Hoeksema’s BISC 380 and 491: Ecology and Evolution of Sky Island Biodiversity course is offered in Arizona during the summer, and Noonan’s BISC 448: Island Biogeography in the Caribbean and Homs BISC 380: Life at the Interface; Microbes, Volcanoes, and Culture in Hawaii are winter session courses.

“For me, the best thing about this course is that Southeastern Arizona is a major biodiversity hotspot with beautiful scenery, making it the ideal outdoor laboratory for learning about species in their natural environment,” said Hoeksema.

“Students immerse themselves in nature and learn to recognize species and understand how they fit into their distinctive habitats while hiking and exploring an outdoor wonderland of mountains and canyons.”

Meredith Gosaa biology major from Oxfordtook part in the Arizona class.

“Every day we would explore the habitat we were studying and document the interesting plants or animals we found,” Goza said. “We did small research projects; meins studied the concentration of different bat species throughout the region.

“All aspects of this course offered fun and direct approaches to exploring science.”

Through travel and study both within and outside the United States, students gain a more holistic view of the field of biology beyond the campus classroom.

“I believe that training young scientists and researchers is much more of a journeyman experience than most people realize, an experience poorly captured by traditional lecture-lab courses,” Hom said.

“The type of field courses I’ve led in California and Hawaii for StudyUSA emphasized ‘experiential learning’ – on-site critical thinking combined with hands-on practice – and no doubt excited the students that they were ‘doing science.’ That the students “do science” is exactly the aim of my field courses.

“Teaching students in a beautiful but unfamiliar environment greatly aids in metacognition and helps them see science in a different and culturally broader context.”

Fresh graduate in biology Jaylen Powellout Lambert, works in Hom’s lab as a technician to gain more skills before grad school. He signed up for the Hawaii class to talk to Hom.

“It was my junior year and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” Powell said. “DR. Hom explained that I should get out of my comfort zone and gain a new perspective. After much thought and confirmation that planes are safe, I decided he was right.

“The Hawaiian experience was all that Dr. Hom had said and more. It was an engaging class, from listening to professors to harvesting tea leaves. My best memorable moments: Visiting a honey farm and learning about bees, and when the class went snorkeling I was pushed out of my comfort zone and wanted to learn to swim.”

For Noonan’s Island Biogeography class, 13 students explored the jungle in Jamaicaforests up St. Thomasand coastal communities of Bahamasobserve biological communities and learn how their geography has influenced them.

Tiffany Nguyenout IndianolaShe called the class her “favourite Ole Miss memory.” She enrolled in the class to study abroad and complete a biology elective for her biochemistry major, which she completed with her bachelor’s degree in May.

“During the winter break, it was nice to take a little break and focus on one class,” Nguyen said. “We had two-hour classes on ship days and on island days we had our ‘laboratory’ where we walked around the islands to find species and study the islands. I tried to live in the moment and appreciate it all.

“DR. Noonan was really, really passionate about the class so it made it 10 times more fun. It’s such a small class, you get to know each other because you spend most of your time on the ship with your classmates. I’ve been on this one Met some of my best friends on the trip.”

Abby Morgan (left), a senior biologist from Tullahoma, Tennessee, and Bridget Sprandel, a junior biologist from Crystal Lake, Illinois, show a live clam they discovered while exploring an estuary on the Bahamian island of Half Moon Cay . University of Mississippi students took an island biogeography course in the Caribbean during the 2022 winter session. photo submitted
University of Mississippi student Lauren Threadgill holds a horned lizard during biology professor Jason Hoeksema’s biodiversity class in Arizona in 2019. Photo by Jason Hoeksema/UM Department of Biology
Jaylen Powell, a University of Mississippi-Lambert biology graduate student, stands on a lava rock overlooking the Pacific Ocean while taking a Study USA course on life at the interface in Hawaii in 2020; Microbes, Volcanoes and Culture. photo submitted
Students of Professor Jason Hoeksema’s course “Ecology and Evolution of Biodiversity of Sky Island” take a deep breath and enjoy the view during a hike in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. Photo by Jason Hoeksema/UM Department of Biology

Travel fund for UM students reaches endowment level

tags: Arizona, Bahamas, Brice Noonan, Caribbean, Erik Hom, Hawaii, Indianola, Jamaica, Jason Hoeksema, Jaylen Powell, Lambert, Meredith Goza, Mississippi, Oxford, St. Thomas, Tiffany Nguyen, University of Mississippi

About the author

University of Mississippi The University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss, is Mississippi’s flagship university. As a member of the elite group of R1: Doctoral Universities – Highest Research Activity by the Carnegie Classification, Ole Miss has a long history of producing leaders in government, business, academia and the professions. The 16 academic departments include a large medical school; state-recognized schools for accounting, law and pharmacy; and an honors college known for its blend of academic rigor, experiential learning, and opportunities for community action. Hailed as one of the most beautiful in the nation, Ole Miss’ main campus is in Oxford, which is routinely recognized as one of the nation’s top university cities.

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