College biology course goes outside for pandemic learning

First published in The World Link on April 27, 2021.

Most college students don’t take their classes on the beach.

But most college students aren’t in Aaron Galloway’s marine ecology class.

In some ways, last week’s lecture felt like a standard class, with a professor telling stories about his research on lingcod to a few dozen students scribbling onto their notepads and stealing glances at their cell phones.

But look any closer and the scene was anything but standard: Driftwood, rocks and camping chairs took the place of lecture hall seats, and a small whiteboard — attached to a step stool with bungee cords in case of wind gusts — stood in for slide decks and projector screens.

Off to one side of the group, the South Coast’s springtime sunshine dried out a set of dripping wetsuits some students had just stepped out of.

“Are you ready for me to wipe that off?” Galloway would ask before changing what was on the white board and moving on to the next topic.

Galloway, a professor at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology — a University of Oregon campus tucked away in Charleston — has reinvented his course for the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, coupling field study with outdoor lectures.

“This is a hands-on program. That’s what we’re selling, that’s what we’re all about,” Galloway said.

Aside from being a marine biology research center and the home of the Charleston Marine Life Center, the campus is the experiential learning arm of the university’s marine biology programs. After taking introductory courses in Eugene, students spend one or three terms taking classes in Charleston.

Galloway’s day-long class sessions have always included time on the beach for field study. But in past years, he’d take students back to OIMB classrooms for indoor PowerPoint lessons on research skills.

That changed in early 2020: By spring break, the university had warned professors and instructors about the possibility of online classes. A few weeks later, students hunkered down to finish the school year in Zoom lectures.

Professors at the OIMB, however, had a big online learning hurdle to overcome: How do you study the tide pools if you can’t visit them in person?

“We couldn’t figure out how to get people out here at all, so we just cancelled it,” Galloway said of last spring’s Marine Ecology class.

Hannah Hartwell, who came to the university from Alaska for its marine biology program, was one of the students who’d hoped to be a part of that class and decided to wait out the pandemic.

“A couple of us are in year five now, because we wanted to wait to get out here,” Hartwell said, standing on the rocks at Cape Arago’s South Cove last week.

As the world began to learn to live with the virus, the university slowly began to open up. In-person classes began at lower capacity in the winter.

And at the Charleston campus, Galloway began planning for his next courses.


The university made rules for in-person classes, setting out who could be in classrooms, the number of fans that had to be on to promote ventilation and the frequency at which tables and surfaces had to be wiped down.

Galloway had a simpler idea: Teach class in the field.

“Which is like something I’ve always wanted to do, to be honest,” the professor said.

The 19 students in the class spend part of each Monday at South Cove, collecting data for the DIMES project Galloway is part of. At the end of the term, their data will be shared with universities across the country, allowing even landlocked regions to teach marine biology.

On the westernmost point of the beach, Hartwell’s group of three tossed a tennis ball to randomly pick a spot to investigate, setting down a PVC-pipe rectangle where it landed to define their search area.

“We’re trying to randomize it as best we can,” said Jordyn Major, a marine biology student who came to Oregon from Arkansas for the OIMB’s program.

While the group photographed and took notes about the rocky square they’d selected, another group of students outfitted in snorkels and wetsuits ran the same experiment a few yards to the west, surveying the underwater landscape.

“It’s pretty clear,” called out one student after ducking below the water to prepare for a sub-surface photo of the shore.

The students would eventually return to the OIMB’s campus to analyze and catalogue the dozens of photos they’d taken — but not before Galloway’s beach lecture about keeping track of their observations.

The students found their places on the beach, gathering around Galloway’s step-stool whiteboard and opening their notebooks. The professor uncapped a marker, removed his face mask while he was a few yards away from the students and began to write his lessons on the board.

Galloway had already sent out a digital version of the lecture notes before class, so he kept the notes on the whiteboard simple. While there were some concepts that could be better displayed on a computer screen, he said the simplicity made his lectures more engaging and easier to follow.

“If I can draw it, they can take notes on that,” Galloway said. “It means that my pace is what their pace is.”

And for students like Bridget Snider, a biology and journalism student who this spring returned to Oregon for classes for the first time all year, the in-person white-board lectures are far more engaging than anything that could be done virtually.

“It has been kind of a challenge because I had been at home in St. Louis since last March,” Snider said of pandemic learning.

Snider said taking three terms of classes from a computer in a bedroom halfway across the country was a struggle, with difficult subjects like physics made even more difficult by distance.

But last week’s sun-drenched class was a whole different experience.

“The fact that we’re able to be here and do things hands-on makes it so worthwhile,” Snider said.