A student’s perspective: ISU on the Mediterranean

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Editor’s Note: The following story is written by Jennifer Musgrove, a senior in Spanish, who will pursue an M.A. in applied linguistics upon graduating from ISU in spring 2015. During May-July 2014, Jennifer was the undergraduate teaching assistant on the ISU on the Mediterranean – Summer in Valencia, Spain, study abroad program. This unique interdisciplinary study abroad program provides beginning through advanced Spanish coursework as well as certain courses in English in engineering, business, agriculture, and the biological sciences. For six-weeks, students live with host families, participate in two weekend excursions to major historical and cultural sites, take at least one Spanish course and another in their academic field, and many partake in experiential learning opportunities such as biological lab work or field work, or internships in Spanish with local businesses or agencies.

Jennifer accompanied the biology students to El Portichol, a rocky inlet located near the city of Javia, along Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Here, she chronicles her fieldwork experiences.

As the bus began its winding descent towards El Portichol, a rocky beach situated within the small coastal town of Jávea, the iridescent waters of the Mediterranean Sea shimmered under the expanse of a clear blue sky. Today the biology students participating in the ISU On the Mediterranean study abroad program are heading for El Portichol as part of an outdoor classroom excursion led by Dr. José I. Valenzuela Ríos, a Geologist and Paleontologist with the University of Valencia, Spain. I was fortunate to be seated next to Course Leaders Dr. Steve Rodermel, ISU Distinguished Professor and member of the Genetics/Development and Cell Biology Department, and Beatriz Spalding, ISU Lecturer in the Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology Department. Dr. Rodermel assures me that today’s excursion will be an unforgettable learning experience, and Prof. Spalding fills me in on the reasons why. “The students will be learning first-hand about coastline formations, ocean erosion, and lower littoral organisms, such as crabs, sea tomato, sea urchins, mussels, lichen, and barnacles.” As the students gaze enthusiastically out the bus windows, Prof. Spalding is equally excited as she pulls out her magnifying glass and wide brimmed sun hat. “I am prepared,” she assures me with a smile.
Once we reach the beach, Dr. Valenzuela gathers the students around him and unfolds a detailed topological map, which he uses to explain the geology of the region and the objectives of the forthcoming hike along the sea and in the adjoining mountains. He begins by encouraging the students to peer deeply into the water and under the rocks to find various species of sea organisms. One student points out a lichen, and another examines a small snail through a magnifying glass. While the students study the beach from a micro perspective, I breathe in the fresh salt air and appreciate the stunning view. As the waves lap peacefully across the shoreline, in the near distance is a lush island where sea birds circle overhead. Close to the island, a sailboat lazily bobs to the rhythm of the waves. Just beyond a circle of buoys, a snorkeler slowly swims his way through the gentle waves, lifting his head to adjust his mask. 
After exploring the coastline and mountains with Dr. Valenzuela for several hours, the students take a refreshing swim in the sea; some of the more adventuresome swim to the island in the bay. The swim is followed by “la comida”, or lunch, served in an open-air restaurant that overlooks the beach. The students are in for a culinary treat as servers bring out appetizers of fresh baked bread with olive oil and vinaigrette, pulpo (octopus), calamares (squid), sepia (cuttlefish), and mejillón (mussels). Then, the chefs themselves carry out the paella, one holding each side of the gigantic steaming pan, to the applause of the students. Dr. Valenzuela explains that paella, a famous regional dish from Valencia, can be created in different ways. However, the paella that we are eating today is called “carne y marisco”, a rice dish that includes both seafood and chicken. It’s apparent from the lively table conversations among the students that, as Dr. Rodermel predicted, today was going to be a memorable experience for them.
A few days later, I was able to visit with Tony Barker, Senior in Biology, and Alissa Campbell, Junior in Microbiology and Genetics. Alissa explains that biology classes taken abroad provide students with a living classroom, a specialized learning environment tailored to the surrounding ecosystem. Tony adds that a guest professor, who is a specialist within his or her field of study, leads a class each week. The first day, the professor presents a lecture about the biological significance of a venue of biological interest; the following day, he or she leads an excursion to that site, accompanied by Dr. Rodermel and Prof. Spalding. Tony expresses that he believes students are more motivated to learn in this environment, and Alissa says that for her, this experience has highlighted the importance of conservation in Spain due to the presence of a surprisingly large number of delicate and unique ecosystems that are threatened, largely by human activities. “Spanish scientists have a lot on their plates here. They are just as passionate and have the same struggles as scientists from the United States”, she relates. I can’t help but ask Tony about the group of students who swam to the island and back during the El Portichol excursion. Yes, he assures me, he was able to do it, although it was a difficult swim. “It took me nearly thirty minutes to swim against the current there and back. I was exhausted but it was well worth it,” he explains with a grin.
Looking ahead to the upcoming lectures and excursions, biology students will be heading to El Saler beach next week to learn about dune formation, and about adaptations of plant and animal life to the dune environment. The last week of the course they will go to the Jardín Botánico, a beautiful botanical garden located just outside Valencia’s old city walls that is filled with rare species of palm trees. The previous three weeks of the course were spent at the Aquarium and turtle hospital; at the Bioparc (a new type of zoo where the animals roam freely); and the Albufera lagoon, a threated habitat noted for agriculture (rice, orange trees) and as a migratory stopping point for birds on their way from Northern Europe to Africa.

I’m certain, especially after my visit with Alissa and Tony, that students will be returning home from this year’s Summer in Valencia program having gained invaluable knowledge and absolutely thrilled with their learning experience abroad.