Penn State defies land-locked location with water-based activities, research

January 31, 2006

University Park, Pa. -- 220 miles. That's the approximate distance from Penn State's University Park campus to the nearest Atlantic Ocean beachfront. But the fact that Penn State's main campus is land-locked in the center of Pennsylvania isn't stopping faculty or students from engaging in water-based research and activities. It's just challenging them to be more creative.

University Park is situated in a region covered with a minuscule amount of water -- 0.39 percent, to be exact, comprising minor bodies of water such as small lakes, streams and creeks -- so it comes as a surprise to most people that Penn State is home to numerous water-centric student interest groups, academic programs and research initiatives.

"Penn State does not let location interfere with the diversity of offering water-based programs and clubs," said Mallory Phillipeck, a junior animal bioscience major with a minor in marine science, and president of the Marine Science Society.

Members of the society investigate the biological and physical aspects of marine studies by making use of local ponds, steams, creeks and aquariums, but they also plan trips to distant waterfront locations such as Ocean City, Md. In addition, the group incorporates dry-land activities such as presentations, films, lectures and career-assistance programs.

Another water-based student club that makes the most of local waterways is the Penn State Outing Club's whitewater group. While ocean kayaking is a branch of the sport, the group focuses on whitewater paddling instead and takes advantage of southwestern Pennsylvania's many rivers renowned nationally for whitewater recreation.

The group travels to various kayak events throughout the year, but members practice a bit closer to home -- at the University's McCoy Natatorium and at Spring Creek in nearby Bellefonte, Pa. Making use of on-campus facilities has been quite practical for the group, as they are able to train even in winter months.

People are fairly incredulous when they learn about the University's Water Ski and Wakeboard Club, said John McClellan, a sophomore film and pre-med double-major who heads the group.

"Usually, when someone finds out that we have the club, they can't believe it, and I tell them to come out to the lake with us," he said.

Employing the learn here/compete there formula that seems to work for most water-based student groups, McClellan's group practices at a lake in Bald Eagle State Park, about 20 minutes away from University Park, but travels to places such as Florida, South Carolina and Virginia for competitions.

One of the newest water-based activity groups is the Penn State Surf Club, which was started in fall 2005. At its heart are members who are lucky enough to have access to the waves at home and feel strongly about sharing that experience with others.

"Just because students go to school in a land-locked state doesn�t mean they live in a land-locked state," said John Ravert, a senior advertising major and president of the Surf Club. "Penn State has students from all over the world, and a few of them live right on the beach and have been generous enough to invite the club to stay for various weekends."

Those in student-interest groups are not the only Penn Staters transcending University Park's terrain; faculty directing Penn State's marine science minor are finding creative ways to make sure geography doesn't limit academic interest in ocean life.

"We bring the oceans here through classroom activities and visiting speakers," said Lee Kump, professor of geosciences and head of the marine science minor. "We do 'oceanography' in nearby lakes, and we travel."

Field trips have taken students to Costa Rica, the Bahamas and Florida, and Kump said he is planning some activities in shipwreck exploration that may take students to even more exotic locations.

Recent ecological concerns about the health of oceans have prompted institutions such as Penn State to focus research efforts in this discipline despite the University's location in central Pennsylvania.

"The nation is concerned about ocean pollution, rising sea levels, the health of fisheries and coral reefs, and the possibility that the circulation of the ocean itself may be significantly altered by global warming resulting from fossil-fuel burning," said Kump. "Given these imperatives, and as long as there is student interest, there will be University support for activities and programs that involve undergraduates in marine science."

Penn State has a long history of overcoming its land-locked status to contribute to the field of marine research.

The University's Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) examines fluid dynamics of marine vehicles as part of a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Navy. ARL has developed state-of-the-art experimental facilities including the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel, a 48-inch-diameter, water-filled tube built in 1949 that has served as a Naval hydrodynamics facility.

Penn State also is home to a scientific diving program that introduces students to basic skills and techniques used to observe underwater phenomena and acquire scientific data. The recreational arm of this program is the Nittany Divers, a group of students, University employees and community members who share common interest in scuba diving and snorkeling. Like other water-focused groups on campus, they make use of both local facilities and distant lake and ocean beachfronts.

"Water-based activities and studies are too much a part of our academic and leisure lives to allow a little thing like location to deter us," said Kump. "Penn State wants to make sure our faculty and students are exposed to and can participate in cutting-edge research and activities, so we use our creativity and innovation to get us there."

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To learn more about the student-interest groups mentioned in this story, visit Penn State's Student Clubs and Organizations page at http://www.sa.psu.edu/usa/studentactivities/search.asp online.

Visit http://www.ocean.psu.edu/ for more information about oceanography at Penn State.

  • Shanna Dunn, a 2005 geoscience graduate, dived right into Penn State's science diving program and is now pursuing a graduate degree in oceanography.

    IMAGE: Penn State Oceanography program

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Last Updated November 18, 2010