Reefs, research and a refinery: EMS science course takes undergrads to Curacao

Liam Jackson
January 30, 2015

Off the coast of Curacao, Penn State geosciences student Liz Andrews scuba dives 30 feet underwater, pulls out a tape measure and counts fish and algae along the coral reef. By comparing with past counts from the same spot, she can determine if the health of the reef is declining.

Andrews, along with 10 other students from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), conducted research as part of a course sponsored by the EMS Center for Advanced Undergraduate Study and Experience (CAUSE). The CAUSE program lets students create, plan and complete a research project of their choosing in a location selected by faculty.

“The whole program is meant to take students through the process of considering science questions and then organizing an approach to answering those questions from start to finish,” said Timothy White, senior research associate with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute and one of the instructors for the course.

“The whole program is meant to take students through the process of considering science questions and then organizing an approach to answering those questions from start to finish.”

White and co-instructors Lee Kump, professor and head of the Department of Geosciences, and Robert Crane, professor of geography, selected Curacao because students could examine both healthy and unhealthy reefs.

Curacao also gave students a chance to study whether a local oil refinery, which was built before many of today’s environmental regulations were in place, was having any impact on the surrounding land. The students hypothesized that they would be able to find chemicals output by the refinery in the surrounding soil, mud, and trees.

The course spanned three semesters: students spent the spring semester planning their research and learning about the culture, history, and geology of Curacao; took a 10-day trip during Maymester to collect data; and spent the fall semester analyzing their findings. The course wrapped up in December 2014 with final reports and presentations.

“The class was a hands-on learning process,” said Everleigh Stokes, a senior majoring in geography. “To be able to do background research, create your own hypothesis, design a research experiment, go to Curacao to collect all the data, and then come back and actually do the analyzing was a very thorough, well-rounded process.”

The trip to Willemstad, Curacao -- where resort-like beaches and colorful Dutch Caribbean style buildings are located near the island’s oil refinery -- was eye opening for many students.

“As you drive through the city, you see these colorful, vibrant buildings created when the Dutch settled here. Then you go over a bridge and see a huge oil refinery. Even with car windows up, it smelled like burning plastic,” said Bobby Reynolds, a senior majoring in energy business and finance.

Students spent nearly 10 hours each day collecting soil, mud, and tree samples from across Curacao. They were looking for elevated levels of vanadium and nickel, two elements that are characteristic of Venezuelan oil. In addition, students went snorkeling or scuba diving to study the coral reefs.

“It’s becoming more common for college students to study abroad, but not like this,” said Reynolds. “We had one afternoon where we could relax, but otherwise, we busted our tails every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. We worked hard, but we enjoyed it.”

After gathering more than 100 samples from the island and surveying three reefs, students pooled together their mix of educational backgrounds to analyze their results. Students from meteorology, energy business and finance, geosciences and geography were enrolled in the class, which gave them a chance to employ widely different perspectives in their analyses.

“You could argue that the refinery is having a negative impact on the environment, and in some ways, the data we found backed that up. But we can’t make large, outlandish claims. At the same time, the refinery maintains Curacao’s economy and employs people,” said Stokes.

At the end of the experience, each student walked away with something different that would benefit each in their future careers.

Reynolds, who wants to work in the financial side of the energy industry, says the class gave him a better appreciation of other cultures.

“I really enjoyed seeing how people in other countries are making it day to day. It is important in just about any industry to understand different parts of the world and how they work. Going to the location and seeing it, being there and living with people really gives you a sense of how their economy flows and their culture works. That’s really important for doing business.”

Andrews, an aspiring researcher, says the class helped her become “a better scientist.”

“We had to figure out what happened if things went wrong. It made me respect the scientific process much more. And now I know how to complete a real research project from start to finish.”

  • student holding mud core sample from CAUSE 2014 trip

    Student Joshua Turner holds a mud core, collected as part a research project in Curacao. 

    IMAGE: Everleigh Stokes

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Last Updated February 03, 2015