ELMHURST – Even though she lives in the Chicago suburbs, Elmhurst College student Alyssa Arwady is doing everything she can to keep the oceans clean and free of the trash that can harm delicate ecosystems in faraway locales.
Arwady was one of three Elmhurst College students who spent nine days in May in the Bahamas as part of the Shedd Aquarium’s Marine and Island Ecology course. The other students were Elisabeth Skeens and Amaar Zafar.
“It was a life-changing trip,” said Arwady, 25, a post-baccalaureate science and health education student. “I didn’t realize the impact that humans have on places like the Bahamas. We did a trash cleanup on an uninhabited island, and seeing the amount of trash we picked up was eye-opening. It really made me conscious of the things I do on a daily basis that can have negative effects.”
The Shedd’s program is offered to students of 15 small, private liberal arts colleges in the Chicago area through the Associated Colleges of the Chicago Area organization. Twenty students are invited to take the for-credit class, which focuses on marine life and ecosystems of islands like the Bahamas.
In March, students began taking all-day courses every Saturday at the aquarium. There, they learned about the animals and habitats they would encounter in the Bahamas and how those ecosystems interact in that environment. Many of the species the group saw on the trip are endangered.
Rebecca Gericke, Conservation Research Programs manager and course instructor, said students also learn about habitat conservation and species identification.
“Once they get to the Bahamas, everything is hands on, so they can see everything we talked about in class,” she said. “They spend their days snorkeling, hiking and observing the marine and island ecology. The trip allows them to get an experience that they can’t get in a classroom, and traveling to the Bahamas is not an experience that many have previously had.”
The students stayed in small cabins on a research vessel the Shedd owns and traveled from island to island in the Bahamas during the adventure. In addition to exploring the ecosystems, students participated in data collection for research Shedd scientists are currently working on.
“Most of the students are biology majors, so they’re getting to take part in scientific research, which is a valuable skill for anyone who wants to go onto a career in science,” Gericke said. “They also learn that humans have a big impact on the environment, which is constantly being changed by things humans are doing. People protect what they know and understand. It’s important for them to have exposure to these areas so they can understand them and develop a personal connection and want to protect them.”
Arwady said the biggest thing she’s taken away from the experience is how much of an impact human behavior has on other ecosystems. She said she hopes to educate family, friends and her future students on things they can do to make a positive impact.
“It’s often out of sight, out of mind, because we’re so far away, but we have such an impact and don’t realize what a problem it will be down the road,” she said. “I want people to get a better understanding of how they can have a positive effect, like using less plastic, not using plastic straws, and being more mindful of wastefulness. I want people to reuse more items so they don’t end up in landfills.”