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A humpback whale surfaces off the Kona coast of the island of Hawaiʻi and glides past a group of Hawaiʻi Community College students from the University of Hawaiʻi Center at West Hawaiʻi.

“It was playing with us today,” said student Natasha Machado. “It started going under our boat. It didn’t go down for a while.”

The close encounter with one of the largest mammals on earth happened during a lab course Hawaiʻi CC started offering in spring 2014, Oceanography 201L–Introduction to Oceanography Lab.

“It’s designed to give the students experiential, hands-on learning on the ocean, so it’s not just a lab, inside a laboratory, inside a classroom,” explained Hawaiʻi CC biology instructor Brie Day.

students on a boat
Hawaiʻi Community College students collect plankton samples off the Kona coast.

Students attend bi-weekly lectures in a classroom setting at the UH Center at West Hawaiʻi that focuses on different aspects of oceanography, from sea floor mapping to ocean chemistry to reef ecology. Seven times during the semester, the students leave Keauhou Bay on state-of-the-art oceanography vessels for the weekly lab course where the students apply the concepts they learned on the open ocean.

“We learn about it in depth and then we got out on the ocean and we go, oh this is why we are learning this,” said student Eddy Rodrigues-Cho. “This is awesome!”

“This is what they call the high impact learning experiences,” said Day. “Anybody can think back to their childhood—do you remember all the lessons you learned sitting in the classroom or do you remember the field trips and special projects that you did when you were in third grade? Those are the things that you’ll remember forever.”

The community college students experience the type of fieldwork that normally only graduate students do thanks to a partnership with the Kona Community Cultural and Educational Foundation (KCCEF). The non-profit provides the vessels, captains, an outdoor laboratory and equipment for hands-on marine education, all for free.

“Our mission is conservation, preservation education and ethical behavior of marine resources,” explained KCCEF President Patrick Cunningham.

“There’s no better way to excite somebody to want to conserve the environment then to actually have them out there, studying it, hands on, collecting real data,” said Day. “And it is thanks to the generosity of this non-profit organization, KCCEF.”

The subject of the lab during the whale encounter had the students four miles off the Kona coast collecting deep sea plankton.

“We basically took samples of plankton—of the zooplankton and the phytoplankton—and what that is, basically is animal versus plant plankton,” said Rodrigues-Cho.

Fellow student, Camie Richno explained that plankton help provide most of the oxygen for the earth.

“More so than rain forest believe it or not,” said Richno. “It’s what I would call the atmospheric engine so to speak, which we learned today in class and I thought was really interesting.”

Then the students return to shore and the KCCEF outdoor lab to look at the samples under microscopes.

“They are tiny little things and they’re just really, really cool because everything on earth basically stems from life at that basic size,” said Rodrigues-Cho.

The hope is that the course will inspire students to consider STEM fields; science, technology, engineering and math.

The students say its impact is immeasurable.

“After getting my liberal arts degree this semester, I am leaning towards more of this just because of how great an experience I had. It’s really fun,” said student Haley Delos-Santos.

“When we get to go out on the boat in the afternoon and go check out everything hands on, it’s amazing and the things we’ve been lucky with seeing, like whales,” said Machado.

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