Students venture off the coast with professional seamen to learn about ocean conservation as part of this year’s Winter Forum at the Duke Marine Lab.
Students venture off the coast with professional seamen to learn about ocean conservation as part of this year’s Winter Forum at the Duke Marine Lab.

Although many Duke students spent their last few days of break preparing for new classes and moving back to campus, 90 undergraduates used this time to learn about environmental problems facing the ocean.

For this year’s Winter Forum, titled “Blue Devils and the Deep Blue Sea: Can We Rescue the Oceans?” students spent three days at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C., learning about issues of coastal and oceanic conservation and management. The forum, hosted by the Nicholas School of the Environment, included lectures both from Duke faculty and others involved in marine conservation, as well as a variety of hands-on activities. It marked the first time since the forum began four years ago that the event was held somewhere other than Duke’s main campus.

“Here in Beaufort, all of the topics are so relevant,” said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education. “[The students] are going out to real places.... Doing it at Duke has been wonderful, but this takes it one step closer to reality.”

The Nicholas School of the Environment made the decision to offer the Marine Lab as a venue both because it felt that it would offer a strong educational program and could increase the visibility of the lab on Duke’s main campus, said Lisa Campbell, Rachel Carson associate professor of marine affairs and policy.

Students spent Sunday, the first day of the Forum, attending a series of lectures to gain a better understanding of some of the current issues surrounding the planet’s oceans, Campbell said. The students were then given the opportunity to apply their knowledge by venturing into the Beaufort community on Monday and working through designated conflict scenarios and seeking information to help them make decisions, Campbell said.

Examples included a group who spent the day on fishing boats to learn about the consequences of recreational fishing and a group who visited a wetland, observed the wildlife, while examining water samples in a laboratory in order to learn about wetland issues.

“They’ve just been able to have more interaction than past forums did,” Campbell said.

Danish Husain, a junior who attended the forum, praised both the speakers and the activities, citing a speech by President Brodhead and seeing dolphins in the wild as highlights.

The Marine Lab has limited housing, so this year’s forum was slightly smaller than last year’s, with about ten fewer participants, Nowicki noted. In addition, fewer students applied to the program—with about 150 applicants, compared to last year’s 250. Nowicki suggested that the decline might have been due to the fact that students needed to return to campus one day earlier than in past years to accommodate travel to Beaufort, or because students might not have wanted to be on the coast during the winter.

Overall, however, most students seemed to view the locale as an asset, with Nowicki saying the forum was the best Duke has ever had.

“Being there went along so well with the theme,” Husain added.

Nowicki noted that preparations for the 2014 Winter Forum, which will be hosted by the Center for Child and Family Policy, have already begun.