I feel the salt spray on my face and instantly smile–another day at “the office.” Today, I am aboard the Schlein, assisting with diversity study of plants and animals on Cabbage Island, a small barrier island off the Savannah coast.

The students on this particular trip are part of an elective field class, but often times the students I work with have never been in a salt marsh, experienced an ever-changing barrier island or had an opportunity to participate in “hands-on science.” Occasionally, I find some of them have never even been to the Georgia coast before they come to Skidaway Island. Therefore, my main job as a Marine Education intern with Georgia Sea Grant is not only to educate but to excite.

Students today are enthusiastic about using quadrats, a standardized square unit of area, to identify the abundance and diversity of plant and animal life on Cabbage Island. Though the data we are collecting is for teaching purposes, I am sure to remind the students that we are following a method that many researchers employ—both on the coast and inland. We are focused on identifying all different kinds of animals and plants we can find in our study site, with students breaking into small groups to calculate the diversity index. Several of the students are delighted that they are getting hands-on experience collecting data in the field, while others are happy with just being able to identify the different species.

Plant and animal identification is very helpful for several reasons. It allows students to safely utilize coastal resources and can potentially prime them for a future career in science by encouraging them to become more scientifically literate. By making inferences between things such as oyster reefs and salt marshes, marine students can better understand the services and resources that a natural environment provides, as well better appreciate how these ecosystems might affect their lives.

Not all classes offered at the UGA Aquarium are as remote as the diversity study trip, or even take place on another barrier island; many are accessible and happen right off our dock—in our “own backyard.” This allows students to make their own connection to the coast, and the animals and plants that inhabit it. Whether I am in the aquarium giving a tour or in the invertebrate or plankton labs, I constantly challenge my students to observe the behavior of an organism and challenge them to think how it makes its living. “How do you think it feeds? Where do you think it lives? What factors do you think influence its life on a daily basis?”

One unique aspect of my job is that sometimes, I learn right alongside my students. When we find something “different” under our microscope during an invertebrate lab, for example, it’s not a stretch to see the two of us breaking out the key books to identify the organism. Each day is a little different, which is an aspect of my job that I whole-heartedly appreciate.

Caitlin assists a high school student with Shannon-Weiner diversity index calculations.

Caitlin assists a high school student with Shannon-Weiner diversity index calculations.

There are 100 miles of coastline in Georgia as the crow flies, but thousands of miles if you consider all of the inlets and tidal creeks. Each day, my students and I get to explore just a small part of the coast, whether it is out on Cabbage or Wassaw Island, something we have seen while out on the R/V Sea Dawg (our 43-foot research trawler), or at our dock on the Skidaway River collecting invertebrates or plankton. I enjoy teaching in a variety of different spaces and locations.

For every mile of coast, I can think of dozens of reasons why I am excited to go to “the office” each day, and I look forward to new challenges as I become a more engaging and knowledgeable educator. I feel honored to help promote coastal stewardship and research as an education intern through the Georgia Sea Grant Marine Education Internship program.