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Professor Betsy Stoner

Mangroves and Manatee Poop

Professor’s ‘virtual field trips’ give students a close-up look at marine life

Molly Mastantuono

Want the Scoop on Manatee Poop?

(Above: Scenes from Assistant Professor Betsy Stoner’s “virtual field trips”: Getting to know a mangrove tree crab; a closer look at mangrove roots; examining manatee poop; distinguishing types of mangroves by their leaf shapes.)

“Manatee poop is really, really important,” Betsy Stoner says, lying on her stomach on a wooden dock to scoop up a bucketful of brackish water from the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. 

Reaching in with her bare hands, the assistant professor of natural and applied sciences picks up a small oval nugget of manatee dung as the camera zooms in for a close-up. Now, her students can see exactly what she sees: clues to the animal’s digestive health, including partially digested seagrass, an intestinal parasite and microplastics, tiny fragments of plastic waste that threaten our marine ecosystems. 

Microplastics and the environmental havoc they wreak are a focus of Stoner’s Environmental Science and Sustainability and Oceanography courses. In a typical semester, students are treated to immersive lab experiences such as dissecting mussels, conducting autopsies on fish and analyzing water samples from plastic bottles. They learn firsthand about the harmful effects of plastic waste on our food chain. The advent of COVID-19, however, upended Stoner’s lesson plans, so as the university transitioned to online learning, she has embraced “virtual field trips.”

Online Classes and Virtual Learning Begin at Bentley 

(Not) Feeling the Pinch: Mangrove Tree Crabs

Stoner was visiting her parents in Florida when the pandemic brought domestic and international travel to a standstill. So she, along with her husband, Chris, and their 3-year-old daughter, Riley, opted to stay there. Now her students are the ones who benefit, with lessons about manatees and sea slugs from a dock off the Florida coast as they follow along on their laptops at home. 

“My parents’ house is right near the Indian River Lagoon,” Stoner says, “so every day, I made it a point to take Riley out for a walk to investigate tide pools and look for manatees.”  

Seeing her daughter’s enthusiastic response to these daily lessons, Stoner decided to create a similar experience for her students with her smartphone.

“This generation of students responds really well to media content, particularly videos on Instagram and YouTube,” she explains. “I felt like if I could make videos that were both entertaining and educational, it could be a really effective way for them to learn.”  

Students Study Microplastics in our Food Supply    

Black Mangroves: A Salty Situation

With her husband operating the camera, Stoner has created a series of “virtual field trips” offering a look at the biologically diverse plants and animals that inhabit an estuary, an ecosystem where freshwater and saltwater meet. In addition to examining manatee poop, Stoner has dissected a lionfish, an invasive species known for its prodigious appetite; licked salt crystals from the back of a black mangrove leaf; and been “slimed” by the sweet-smelling purple mucus excreted by startled sea hares. 

Stoner’s students are enjoying the video excursions. “Dr. Stoner’s videos are really interesting, informative and engaging,” says Madison Springfield ’20, an Information Design and Corporate Communication major. “She fires off all of these cool and interesting facts about organisms, their habitats and the environmental threats they’re facing. I’m able to learn so much from just a 20- or 30-minute video.”  

Sustainability Science major Brodie McPherson ’22 agrees. “During the regular semester, Dr. S. was always trying her best to incorporate hands-on lab activities,” he notes. “These virtual field trips are a great way to continue that, offering us a new kind of field experience.” Like Springfield, he appreciates Stoner’s humor and levity. “It’s really uplifting to have a professor who is doing her best to make classes fun and interactive, especially during a time that can be so difficult for so many.” 

(Sea) Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow: A Marine Mystery