Marshes and woods fill the South Carolina Lowcountry. Tall grasses hide the birds and fish that spend their time in the marsh's mud and water. For Julian Gatch, a quick bike ride down a dirt path reveals wild turkeys and deer peeking out behind forests of leaves and trees. The environment opens a whole new world for Gatch and the best part is that this world sits just outside her window.
"It's really just a whole different experience to be living in the dorms on site just surrounded by nature," Gatch said. "You walk through the marsh, and there's just wildlife everywhere. It's a beautiful place to be, and you'll fall in love with it."
Gatch, a South Carolina Honors College student majoring in biological sciences, was a part of the inaugural class of the Honors College's Semester at the Coast, where 10 Honors students live and study at the Baruch Institute at the North Inlet Estuary in the South Carolina Lowcountry. The program means that instead of a Columbia lab, students use the venue's archeological sites and nature reserves as their classrooms for a semester.
Students can earn credits toward majors or minors in biology and environmental studies or marine science through hands-on experiences and lessons from top researchers from the University of South Carolina and Clemson University.
When approached about the idea of a collaboration between the Honors College and the Baruch Institute, associate dean Andrea Tanner knew it would be a way to give Honors students a chance to discover things they'd never learn in a typical class, find a strong community of peers and mentors and take on impactful career opportunities.
“This type of experience is what honors education, and the South Carolina Honors College, is all about,” Tanner said. “When you bring together talented students and top research faculty in this unique setting, the result is an inventive and immersive educational experience that I don’t think you will find elsewhere.”
The Semester at the Coast program teaches students science, environment and health topics through a curriculum that focuses heavily on the experiential learning that is a priority in the Honors College. That means for a lesson about storm hazards and the storm towers intended to protect against them, students did far more than look at the information on a slide.
"It required a journey, loading up into our van and then hopping on our biggest boat and picking up an archaeologist," director of the Baruch Lab William Strosnider said about the lesson. "Then journeying down south towards Charleston, through the intercoastal waterways and landing on an island and getting off and then finding the storm tower that we went to go learn about."
Strosnider said the program took this hands-on approach with all of the offered classes, which ranged from topics on estuarine ecology to lowcountry culture and history.
"You're getting integrated into this ongoing research that these researchers are doing that are teaching a class. So you're going to go collect real data," Strosnider said. "You can't get a more intense science experience than doing real science in the field with a real accomplished scientist like that. You just don't get those experiences in undergraduate ever."
The closest experience Gatch had to hands-on learning was in her chemistry class. As an animal lover, her closest encounter with wildlife was during childhood adventures in the woods near her house. Semester at the Coast changed that.
"We got to uncover snake traps, we found copperheads, and I got to hold a black racer snake that we got. We got to see a whole Woodstock rookery — there were hundreds of them," Gatch said. "It was just an awesome day."
Louisa Mai, another student in the program, said that the teaching style made topics more exciting and engaging.
"Everything that we were learning we could apply. We would just go outside and experience the things we're learning in our class," Mai said. "One of the girls did her project on retention ponds, and we just went to a retention pond on the side of the road to talk."
Students also explored the historical elements of the area, with a few students helping a local archaeologist uncover Gullah artifacts in a nearby fishing village.
"It was just fun to be able to sort out these artifacts. And it feels like you're the first one to find these cool things," Gatch said.
Students learned technical research skills like how to drive a boat, navigate through pluff mud, pull nets, measure fish and even drive stick shift. But they also learned practical skills like scientific paper writing, resume building and public speaking.
"I also got really great presentation skills. And it was the first time I could really see myself doing this as a career, doing the fieldwork, but then also going to a scientific talk and giving it," participant Gabby Gagnon said. "I was able to learn how to be curious and ask questions and how to make connections with the professors and other students."
Strosnider and Tanner purposefully created the Semester at the Coast program with a small number of students and professors in mind. Therefore, the program includes only 10 students and five professors, as well as a small number of other researchers and professionals to create a tight-knit community.
"That's part of working in such close contact, you build real relationships with the students," Strosnider said. "One of the things that I wanted to engender into our experience was that we really get to know our students, and we're a resource for them for the rest of their lives. This isn't just a one-off class thing. We're building a relationship."
Professors taught classes, led research and field trips and acted as role models for the students. Gatch said professors gave valuable advice on how to "achieve anything that we wanted to achieve for ourselves."
Students even spent time with professors outside class, learning their favorite recipes and telling stories around a bonfire. For Mai, this created a space where she felt comfortable taking risks and learning.
"We weren't nervous to say anything or ask a question or kind of make a guess. And so you really get to know each other," Mai said. "It felt like they valued your opinions more and more because they knew you already as a person."
Group meals ended up being an important part of the program's community building, with professors, students and even local chefs coming in to share their favorite recipes during dinner. Many meals focused specifically on showcasing lowcountry cuisine and using natural resources.
A guest chef taught the students how to make shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles and potato salad and a number of other local dishes that left the group with "leftovers for weeks." Strosnider shared his popular family shrimp recipe, and one student shared a hummus pasta dish that is now considered "legendary."
"That's one of the shared aspects of humanity like people break bread together, and that's how you build community. And that's exactly how it went." Strosnider said.
Students say they still send each other recipes after building a close community inside and outside of class during the semester.
"We would hang out all the time like we would watch movies together or go to the Pawleys Island Starbucks together all the time or the beach. We all got along really well," Gagnon said.
Strosnider said he sees the connections formed during the program as relationships that will go beyond a class or a semester.
"They really, they built relationships that they'll have forever," Strosnider said.
Semester at the Coast is a unique program with many chances to be hands-on, but Strosnider said that many of the students from the first cohort didn't come in with outdoor experience. Instead, it was an opportunity for them to learn and grow in their skills.
"I think if you look at the students that did it the first time like they didn't come in as a bunch of rugged folks that have done experiments before. That's not at all the case," Strosnider said. "They were interested in taking the plunge, having this unique experience, doing something that most students don't do, and it panned out entirely for them."
Mai entered the program as a global studies major, having never even taken a college science class. She said while she knew she loved the environment, she never saw herself as a science-minded person.
"Doing it made me realize that one, I could do it, and it was a lot more interesting than I thought it was," Mai said. "I never really knew what I wanted to do. So it's interesting to see people that have real jobs. A lot of times, it feels like you don't know what people are doing. So it was interesting to see what real scientists do."
Mai said the Semester at the Coast program persuaded her to switch her major to environmental sciences and has made her more confident in applying for jobs in the future.
"I know where to look, and I know I have people that can help me if I need help or could write me a letter of recommendation," Mai said.
The skills and connections made with professors and researchers have also created multiple internships and job opportunities for students. This summer, three students continued to work with professors from the program, and more said they plan to be involved with future opportunities made possible by the semester.
"This summer, I had an internship at UGA's Marine Institute. It's a very similar marine field lab, and I participated in fieldwork in the marsh and ecology work. I would have never even known I was interested in this kind of work if I hadn't done this semester program and been exposed to it. And then I was able to apply for internships and get recommendations from the professors at the Baruch Institute," Gagnon said. "I'm still in undergrad, but it's even now guiding me and my career."
Gatch also said the program shifted her perspective, and as a pre-med major, it has made her heavily consider going into research, which she had never considered before. For students who are nervous or unsure if the program is for them, Gatch encourages them to take the leap.
"Even if you don't feel like you're the most adventurous person, and maybe this is like out of your comfort zone, if you just give it a chance, your comfort zone will expand as a result of this program, and you will be a lot more comfortable with a lot of things that you never even thought about before," Gatch said.
The Semester at the Coast program will begin in January and continue through April, and interested students can find more information and sign up for the program online.