Immersion learning takes many different forms, but for students in Emily Boone’s Marine Biology of the Chesapeake Bay, it involves literal immersion in mud and water.

In mid-October, Boone and her 15 students took an overnight field trip to the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center in Oyster, Va., to study the coastal bays, salt marshes, sea-grass beds, oyster reefs, and barrier islands of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  

“We took a boat that wound through channels to get to a barrier island,” Alex McDilda, ’14, said. “The tide was out when we arrived, so the boat couldn’t pull up to the dock. We jumped in the water and waded over to the mudflat where everything was decaying. It smelled really bad.

“The ground on the barrier island looked like it was moving because it was covered in thousands of fiddler crabs. Snails covered the marsh grasses. We waded through mud up to our calves. It was the best part of my semester so far!”

Boone made several preparatory visits to Oyster, Va., in the months preceding her class field trip.

“On previous trips I put wire-mesh cubes filled with oyster shells in the water to simulate an oyster reef,” Boone said. “When my students returned weeks later, they could see what was living in there.”

Her students discovered a host of sea creatures living in the cubes. They collected oysters, toadfish, sea cucumbers, sea squirts, mud crabs, blue crabs, red-beard sponges, and sea lettuce in big buckets. Once back in Richmond, they transferred the organisms to a salt-water aquarium in the Gottwald Center for the Sciences.

A week later, Boone’s students hauled big buckets loaded with their catch into two fifth-grade classrooms at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, a community partner of Build It, the University’s neighborhood-based civic-engagement initiative.

Fifth graders eagerly crowded around tables as Boone’s students talked about the sea creatures and passed them around for the children to examine.

“Ew!” shrieked one child when a sea squirt shot water at her when she touched it.

During the semester, Boone’s students lead five interactive sessions on Chesapeake Bay ecology for the Overby-Sheppard fifth graders. The sessions focus on estuaries, blue crabs, food webs, oysters, and pollution.

"The class is a great way for my kids to get hands-on experience, visuals, and textual information on the SOL topics," said fifth-grade teacher Mandy Fuhrman. "It brings SOLs to life in the classroom. We are so excited to be partners with such a great university and professor."

Likewise, Boone is excited about partnering with Overby-Sheppard.

“I love outreach education,” Boone said. “College students learn more if they teach someone else. And outreach education exposes public school students to things they might not ever experience otherwise.”

Community-based learning is a different way to learn,” Austin Butler, ’14, said. “The kids want to see and understand things. It works the same way for us. Our field trip was a great experience. It’s one thing to read about something, but to actually see a mudflat and smell it is really great.”

Photo: Emily Boone, left, supervises students Nicole Pradas, '14, and Tommy Hurst, '16, as they pull a net through sea-grass beds to collect specimens.