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Experiential Learning

The Leith River we’re running tests on.

Thank god the sun was out. It was only 40 degrees and I was standing in knee-high waders in the Leith river trying to collect a kick-sample of stream invertebrates. The water felt like ice through the thick rubber, but nothing could ruin my spirits. This, this standing in cold water, this getting fish guts on my notebook, this being out in “it” was why I wanted to study abroad at The University of Otago. I became an environmental science major because I love the outdoors and everything that comes with it, but up until this point I haven’t been able to take a class where hands-on research was the main focus. In this class, Zoology 318: Freshwater ecology, we get to pick a research topic and conduct independent research on it for the entire semester. At the end of the semester we’re going to draft a manuscript about our study and present it to our class. Our topic is about how different parts of the river recover from flood disturbance. This class has given me the opportunity to see what field research looks like for environmental science.

Assessing stream invertebrates in the Leith River.

Not only do the classes here take you out into the world to explore, but they bring the world to you. In my religious studies class about the body and its representation in Asian religions, a Buddhist monk guest lectured for three lectures. I was surprised at how different it was to have someone who is actually a Buddhist monk speaking on the subject as opposed to someone who’s only studied it in school. The academic experience here at the University of Otago has kept me on my toes.

In addition to my zoology course and my religion course, I’m taking two other classes. A Victorian literature class, with an amazing lecturer who’s accent makes it seem like every sentence she says is meant to be in an empowering speech, as well as a marine science class that focuses on marine invertebrates. Both of these classes have special aspects to them as well. In my English class we’ve delved into Victorian periodical archives for our research assignment. In my marine science class we travel out to a lab on the Otago peninsula every week. This lab would be like any chemistry lab I’ve been in, except for the fact that we get to dissect marine invertebrates in a laboratory with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the bay on one wall and floor to ceiling fish tanks with different marine species in them on the other.

The marine science lab we go to in Portobello.


Marine invertebrate dissections we perform. Pictured: a sea cucumber and a sea star.

It is strange getting used to the semester system. Things are far more spaced out here than they are Northwestern. Instead of having a week in the middle of grind-y hard work, my entire September is filled with essays to write and lab practical exams to study for. Like classes at Northwestern, you have to put in the work to get the results here at the University of Otago. It has been a refreshing experience to move away from typical schedules and try something new for a change, even if that something new is just an amazing view.

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