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Justin Symington ’97 and Dave Philipp ’70 offer high school students hands-on research opportunities in the Bahamas

Forget the corner office. Justin Symington ’97, assistant head of school and research program coordinator at the Cape Eleuthera Island School (CEIS) in Cape Eleuthera, Bahamas, has an enviable work environment — surrounded by the aquamarine of the Caribbean with temperatures in the low 80s and perfectly sunny weather.

Even on the islands, Symington has found a connection to his alma mater in Dave Philipp ’70, senior scientific officer and chair of the advisory committee for the Cape Eleuthera Institute, the sister research institute for the graduate students who lead the school’s research projects.

“Dave and I met on an eight-seater prop plane flying from Ft. Lauderdale to Eleuthera,” recalls Symington. “It’s hard to hear on those planes, so we were straining to communicate effectively, but we managed to get out the usual basic information. Then we arrived at colleges. So I said something like, ‘Wow! Lafayette, huh? Me, too.’ Well, Dave burst into a well-practiced song replete with arm-pumping and other gesticulations. And I had no idea what was happening. After a few verses, he realized that I was generally confused and clued me in: the Lafayette fight song. To his utter disappointment, I didn’t actually know the fight song.”

That chance meeting was the beginning of a beautiful friendship — and increased research opportunities for high school students. CEIS is a semester-abroad program for American high school students that focuses on environmental sustainability, place-based and experiential education, and involving students in authentic scientific research.

“Dave and I recently revamped the program, and we’ve made excellent progress in delivering a program that allows young students to participate in important work at the frontlines of research,” says Symington. “For example, our shark project is funded by Save Our Seas and has pioneered the use of baited remote underwater video as a non-lethal means of estimating shark populations in Caribbean waters. Students in our aquaculture project work to improve the functioning of a multi-million dollar fish operation through which we grow cobia that feed the school community. I’m looking forward to what our future collaborations will produce.”

Philipp, whose “real job” is principal scientist for the Illinois Natural History Survey, admits making a living from scientific research is a dream, but he never imagined working with a concept like CEIS. The thrill of discovery still excites him. Last year, his flats ecology student research group happened upon a dead eight-foot bull shark while snorkeling transects in the marina at the end of the cape. After enlisting a crane to lift the 400-pound shark out of the water, the learning began.

“Edd Brooks, leader of the shark research project, performed an impromptu educational dissection for the entire school, students and faculty alike,” he says. “It was fascinating, and the students were glued to the activity even though the air quality was less than optimum! That was a great biology lesson, and an even better conservation one; no student went away without a great appreciation for the worldwide plight of sharks, one of the most overfished groups of organisms on the planet.”

That kind of spontaneous learning opportunity is exactly what makes the island school such a valuable experience, says Symington, who leads an archaeology project that is a prehistoric phase survey of South Eleuthera. One of his groups discovered large bones strewn about the floor of a Lucayan Taino burial cave. Initially thinking they belonged to livestock, they found an intact human skull shaped in infancy. Emergency excavations confirmed over 30 separate Lucayan individuals.

Archaeology is a passion Symington nurtured at Lafayette through a thesis under the guidance of Susan Niles, professor of anthropology. He even connected with Niles in Guatemala while he was leading an archaeologically themed trip for the island school and she was conducting a semester-abroad session with Lafayette students.

“My experience at Lafayette was pivotal in forming both the background expertise to be able to lead a course like this as well as my belief in the importance of primary research in a student’s educational journey,” says Symington, who as a Lafayette student presented his work at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. “When I brought the ambitious —  in hindsight, naively ambitious — idea of conducting a full-scale excavation and report for a thesis project to my adviser, I received only support in carrying it out. Susan is thoroughly knowledgeable and passionate about not just her area of expertise, but also the craft of teaching.

“These invaluable experiences have had a lasting effect on my current profession as a high school teacher, strongly influencing my teaching philosophy. Throughout my career, I have gravitated toward hands-on and experiential education. My goal has always been to include projects and curricula pieces that force students to be active agents in their own learning by doing what they are studying, not simply reading about what others do.”

Philipp agrees that the academically challenging environment he found at Lafayette allowed him to pursue a rewarding career.

“It instilled in me an appreciation for research, but perhaps more importantly made me aware that one can make a career out of lifelong learning, and for me, learning about something that was my passion,” he says.

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