As the day drew to a close, the fog lifted, flooding the landscape with warm, much longed-for light, rewarding the island’s inhabitants with a triple rainbow. As Drummond describes it, the herring gulls that she had studied all summer shared the students’ exhilaration by taking to wing, many of the young chicks joining the adults for their maiden flights. Drummond was one of seven students who conducted independent research projects on Great Duck during the summer of 2004. Located five miles south of Mount Desert Island, the 265-acre island is home to approximately twenty percent of Maine’s nesting seabirds, featuring large colonies of Leach’s storm-petrels, black guillemots, herring gulls and great black-backed gulls. Formerly used for sheep grazing, the remote island is infrequently visited today and then only by fishermen and Coast Guard officials who come to check the island’s automated lighthouse. When COA was granted use of the island for field research in 1998, professor John Anderson immediately recognized the study opportunities offered by the site and its seabirds, allowing students the kind of hands-on research that leads some to call COA a graduate school for undergraduates. Like other professors at COA, Anderson sees his role as encouraging students to figure where they want to go with their work, then helping them get there. He hopes students will design their own research project in their first year at the college, then use further studies to enhance their chosen path. Making these decisions can be more daunting than jumping through the set hoops of a traditional program, Anderson acknowledges. Recalling his early years at the University of California at Berkeley, he says, “Students never worked one-on-one with a professor. We were assigned textbook exercises with foreordained outcomes. There was always a ‘right’ answer.” It’s not easy to do selfdesigned research, warns Anderson. “Students discover that the world is not patterned logically; the birds haven’t read the textbooks. When the freedom to discover this through field research works, it’s an amazing outcome. When it doesn’t work, we need to have the parachute ready to assist the student in finding the right path.” Often, though, it’s the errors that bring about the learning. For Drummond, the great lesson of the summer was recognizing the flaws in her project’s initial design and the mistakes she made in its actualization. Jessica Lach, starting her second year at COA, had a similar experience. “Working with John this summer was one of the greatest experiences
Above, clockwise from top: Marianna Bradley ’06, Jessica Lach ’07 and Sarah Drummond ’06 band birds. Left: Sarah Drummond removes a Leach’s stormpetrel chick from its burrow for banding.
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