Mystic opens portals with interactive studies

The Williams-Mystic program, in existence for 25 years, offers students the opportunity to experience life on the sea while taking interdisciplinary academic courses that facilitate hands-on research.

Originally designed in 1977 by Benjamin Labaree, a professor from Williams the Mystic program grew out of an earlier, but similar program that took place over winter study period. Labaree wished to encourage the cultivation of students interests in these areas, by offering a cross-disciplinary program.

“[The sea] is the story of human history,” said Dr. James Carlton, professor of marine science and director of the Williams- Mystice program

Carlton believes that in order to comprehend the world today one must also be able to understand the ocean itself.

Referring to the oceans, Carlton commented, “If one wants to understand the world today you’d hardly want to ignore most of the world.”

While offering students a multidisciplinary curriculum, the Mystic program ultimately serves to provide participants with a clearer understanding of the sea and its surrounding environment.Therefore, promoting this understanding was an initial goal of the program, along with the opportunity for multidisciplinary learning about the sea.

During the program, students live in 19th century houses at Mystic Seaport, right next to the Mystic museum, which is the largest maritime museum in the country. They take four classes, studying the sea in terms of literature, policy and history. Their approach to these areas of study is unique.

“There is an emphasis on research and contributing to knowledge rather than repeating knowledge,” added Carlton.

Students’ approach to learning is hands-on. When studying policy, students conduct first hand interviews with policy officials.

Students also design and conduct scientific experiments, while analyzing original source documents from the 1800s, such as captain’s logs, in order to gain a better understanding and appreciation for the sea.

Since the founding of the program, certain aspects of it have been improved. For example, students have participated in a Field Seminar on the Pacific Coast, which allows them to compare and contrast the two oceans they experience, both in scientific and historic terms.

Other field seminars include one on Nantucket and another offshore, in which students conduct research at sea.

The program allows 22 students per semester from approximately 15 different colleges to participate. Generally, between four and six of the students are from Williams.

Lasting for 17 weeks, the program can be thought of as a program of “voluntary immersion,” Carlton said.

Student response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. Carlton notes that 96 percent of Williams-Mystic Alums, no matter what college they attended, recall their semester at sea as being the most memorable.

Although students find themselves dealing with such drawbacks as living in tight quarters and preparing meals for housemates, their learning experience make-up for these “inconveniences.”

Many changes are taking place down at the Mystic Seaport. Currently, a new state-of-the-art Marine Science Lab is under construction, along with the ongoing renovation of student housing.

Looking to offer more field seminars, administrators are constantly looking for ways to enhance the curriculum.

Interested students should note that the program’s Early Admissions deadline is set for the Fall 2003 and Spring 2004 semesters is March 7, while applications for regular admissions are due April 7.