Rowan College at Gloucester County

Class in the Wetlands

College Relations, Communications, and Marketing
Deptford Twp.
Date: 11/11/2016

The classroom consists of tall grasses, sand, water and turtles. As 10 students in Dr. Jessica DeGraff's Wetlands Field Ecology class receive instructions about the day's lab requirements, a research scientist passes out clipboards and buckets.

For second-year students at Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC) today is a rescue mission to save diamondback terrapins, a hands-on science lesson at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor. DeGraff, a biology professor who teaches the Marine Science degree program, has been incorporating the active field study into her courses for five years, and working with the Wetland Institute for a decade. Open to anyone interested in learning about the environment, the course provides a secure, solid background for all science students, not only those pursuing careers in marine science. RCGC is the only community college in New Jersey to offer an associate degree in marine science.   

"I like to tell students that the wetlands are the kidneys of the landscape filtering runoff and pollutants and preventing flood damage," said DeGraff smiling. "Of the 10 labs held during the semester, six are off site visits. Since an instructor cannot know everything, I try to have the experts talk to the students whenever possible."

Experts, such as Brian Williamson, a scientist at the Wetlands Institute, are dedicated and eager to share information about their research and conservation work. On a sunny, warm fall afternoon, Williamson explains the process of checking terrapin excluders to the students —a simple, inexpensive device invented by the Wetlands Institute that has saved thousands of terrapins from drowning in commercial crab traps since 1998. The future scientists investigate each excluder, on the lookout for new hatchlings as they document their findings.

"We want visitors to the Wetlands Institute to come away with knowledge and an appreciation of the salt marsh, and to understand that these habitats are important," said Williamson, explaining how essential diamondback terrapins are as a keystone species as they keep in check organisms that might otherwise harm the ecosystem. "Diamondback terrapins are very unique. They are the only reptile that can live in the salt marsh all of its life. Without diamondbacks, the ecosystem might collapse or become unhealthy. Salt marshes need to be protected to keep storms from eroding beaches and as a breeding ground for fish."

"I love turtles," remarked Kiara Stefanik, a marine science major. "We mark the turtles and measure to see anomalies, oddities of the shells. We try to recover eggs to keep the population up."

Over the years, human activities have endangered New Jersey diamondback terrapins. Loss of salt marsh habitat, pollution and coastal development have affected the sand dunes on barrier beach islands damaging their natural nesting habitat. Carnage of adult females from crossing the road during the nesting season, which coincides with the start of the summer tourist season, kills between 500-700 terrapins each year. Tens of thousands of terrapins drown in Maryland-style commercial crab traps annually.

"We need to keep terrapins safe," stated Alyssa Pepe, who the week before had participated in a seine-fishing lab using a net to capture fish so they could be counted, sized and researched.

Physics major Mason Gagne couldn't be happier with his decision to take the field ecology course. During one class, he pulled on waders, shifted through saltwater and discovered a pipe fish.

"I picked it up. It was bony and wrapped itself around my finger. It was the funniest thing. I thought… yes, this is class," said Gagne.

For more information about RCGC's Marine Science associate degree program, visit To view the video of the Marine Science class at the Wetlands Institute, visit RCGC at Wetlands Institute

Rowan College at Gloucester County is located on a 250-acre campus on Tanyard Road, Deptford, just off Exit 56 of Route 55.