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Real-life science

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March 22, 2007

A near-moonless Saturday night in September found a group of UGA freshman playing duck-duck-goose in the waves of Sapelo Island's shoreline. Though the game itself was exciting, "half the fun was seeing the water glow whenever you kicked it," said freshman Mary Lowell Downing. "They told us there would be bioluminescence here, but none of us thought it would glow so brightly."

This evening game capped off an annual weekend field trip to Sapelo Island, part of a science class for students in UGA's Honors Program. The class satisfies the requirement in Area D of UGA's core curriculum with two four-hour classes - one each semester over a full year. Created for non-scientists, the course focuses on topics like the history of scientific thought, the reliability of theoretical models, and science in energy conservation, among other things.

Most everything the students do at Sapelo is used as instruction. A sourdough pancake breakfast becomes a chemistry lesson. During a hike, the group collects data about the spread of the island's non-native species of plants, the chemical makeup of the salt-water marshes, and the motion and strength of the tides and currents. Just a few hours before the game of duck-duck-goose, the 25 students gave presentations to each other about different aspects of the island.

"The group gets really excited about the bioluminescence every year," said physics professor Richard Meltzer from the shoreline. "We take them out to the beach, and someone always goes for a swim."

Meltzer is one of the class's four professors. The class has four sections, each taught by a different faculty member. The first section is physics, after which comes chemistry taught by emeritus professor Darwin Smith, then geology with professor Rob Hawman, and finally, biology with Distinguished Research Professor Stephen Hubbell.

The class began in 1972, and the students have gone to either Skidaway or Sapelo Island each year since 1974. Smith was one of the faculty members who began the class. He said, "We started thinking about different disciplines. We wanted to give the students these kinds of opportunities. Because of the unique coastal environment of Georgia, we wanted to give them the chance to see science firsthand, to do science in a natural environment."

When asked if they feel the need to "dumb-down" the material for non-science majors, the professors reply in the negative. Whether it's collecting water samples in marshes or discussing Einstein's General Relativity Theory in the classroom, this class gives the professors an opportunity to help students develop a better understanding of the world.

"On Sapelo Island, you get not only appreciation for why conservation is so important," Smith says, "but also why things are the way they are and how they got to be that way."

"Plus, we get to make sourdough pancakes," chimes in art major Thalia Bromstad.

Story by Daniel Jordan.