Correa brings Flower Garden Banks’ coral reef to Rice

The closest coral reef to Houston is more than 100 miles off the Texas coast. So how did Rice bioscientist Adrienne Simoes Correa give her students a realistic laboratory class involving coral reef ecology without leaving campus?

She brought the Flower Garden Banks’ coral reef to Rice — legally — with a little ingenuity and a 2014 Brown Teaching Grant.

Correa, a faculty lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology in Rice’s Department of BioSciences, obtained images of the sanctuary’s coral reefs from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and printed them life-size on vinyl outdoor banner material (the type used on highway billboards). On the evening of March 18, students of Correa’s  Intro to Aquatic Ecology with Scuba Lab sunk the banners at the bottom of the competition pool at Rice’s Barbara and David Gibbs Recreation Center. The students, who became certified divers this semester as part of the course, then spent several hours underwater measuring reef parameters with the various tools used by marine researchers.

“What we’ve basically tried to do is bring the reefs here so that people can see them in a different way than inside a textbook,” said Correa. “(The experience is) about as close as you can get without being in the ocean.”

Students of Correa’s Coral Reef Ecosystems class then followed up by collecting land-based data from the printed coral banners, which were laid out on the Central Quad. They used image-analysis tools to understand how individual coral colonies have changed over time.

Whether on land or underwater, Correa said, one of her goals is to engage students with methods and tools employed by aquatic ecologists. However, she noted, research and ecosystem monitoring is often easier on terra firma.

“Having two-dimensional reefs in a pool allows students to employ the tools that scientists use underwater to ask ecological questions,” she said. “It also pulls the curtain back and helps (the students) understand how complicated logistically it can be to do aquatic research.”

Grace Cullinan, a Jones College junior studying ecology and evolutionary biology, agreed that everything is more difficult under the water’s surface and noted that she must pay close attention to her breathing as this impacts how she moves while diving.

“Underwater, you’re not in as much control as you would think,” she said. “It’s fun, but it’s difficult.”

The experience of working on corals in the pool served as training for a class trip to Spring Lake in San Marcos, Texas, March 21 and 22. The students will return to Spring Lake April 11 and 12. Both trips involve scuba-based data collection that, with the help of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, can inform ecosystem management practices at Spring Lake.

Josh Morse, a Hanszen College sophomore studying ecology and evolutionary biology, hopes to use his class experience to survey reefs in the Caribbean as part of a future study-abroad experience.

“This is really good practice for that,” he said.

Morse said that Correa’s enthusiasm for the subject matter and the class is the reason he decided to make it his focus at Rice.

“This opportunity didn’t exist last year; she just sort of created it out of the blue,” Morse said. “She knew we didn’t have the chance to work with reefs being in Houston, and she just creatively figured out this way (to make it happen). It’s just such an awesome opportunity; we’re really lucky to have it. And it’s all thanks to her.”


About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.