Dr. Swinehart Takes Marine Biology to its Natural Habitat

Written by Chandler Ryd

There are several things that everyone learns quickly upon arrival at Hillsdale: 1) the core curriculum is extensive, and 2) not everyone will enjoy all of the required classes (at least initially). But with Dr. Swinehart’s recent Florida Keys Biology summer session, students had the opportunity to take care of their Biology core requirement in a way that everyone ought to find appealing: snorkeling and catching weird fish. There’s no better way to cure the cabin fever of a snowy Michigan winter than by diving into sun-drenched salt water.

The summer class represents a much more hands-on approach to learning the technical taxonomy and complicated cellular functions of classroom-based biology. Students can see a diagram of a barracuda and then snorkel into a coral reef just hours later to see the animal in its natural habitat.

Junior Economics major Pietro Moran joined the trip because he wanted to experience the subject of Biology in its “natural habitat” (pardon the pun). “I never studied biology in detail,” Pietro said, “but having an intense two weeks to commit to the subject changed my longstanding opinion that the subject was boring.”

Each day typically starts with Dr. Swinehart’s classroom lectures.

The real fun began after lunch, when the regular agenda began to look something more like a tropical vacation. The group would wade in the shallows to conduct field research, then head out into the waves on a boat to begin the snorkeling and the fishing.

On one such snorkeling escapade, Pietro caught a puffer fish: “Once I placed my hands on it, the fish began inflating itself with air and bearing its spines, a method of defense meant to ward of predators. Feeling the spines prick my fingers was certainly not the highlight, but I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer genius of this defense, and my curiosity grew with creatures I handled.”

Once the sun began to set, Dr. Swinehart would bring the boat back to shore for dinner, and then the students would spend the evening in the lab classifying all of the marine life they had caught that afternoon.

Catching a puffer fish was not Pietro’s craziest story; he remembers snorkeling through a protected habitat of coral reefs with the long, knife-like figures of barracuda gliding through the water a mere four feet away, then looking down to see the reefs rippling with marine life. “As I watched angel fish, parrot fish, and cowfish dart around the lush sea floor, I was awestruck by the physical manifestations of what we had studied in the classroom.”

Several weeks after the trip (and, more importantly, several weeks after the practical exam, Pietro can still remember the genus and species of many of the fish he swam with in the reef. “Having this same course in the classroom would certainly have not done the subject justice, and I believe that Dr. Swinhart’s efforts to create and intensive and hands-on experience will continue to inspire students, both biology majors and non-majors, and proves that Hillsdale has a strong commitment to the sciences as well.”


Chandler RydNovelist, filmmaker, and resident root-beer snob, Chandler Ryd, ’18, is the president of the Creative Writing Club. He studies English in his free time. You can usually find him in the periodicals section of the library.