How classes at Friday Harbor Labs have adapted during COVID-19

Friday Harbor Labs. Dan DiNicola

In a year where Zoom calls have replaced most classrooms, the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs (FHL) devised a way to safely hold in-person classes, maintaining an intensive hands-on learning course that caps off the UW Marine Biology experience.

Situated in the heart of the San Juan Islands, roughly 100 miles from Seattle, FHL is a unique satellite campus that offers students an unparalleled opportunity to immerse themselves in the Pacific Northwest’s marine environment. Much like the NBA’s “bubble,” where teams were isolated to ensure player health during the pandemic, the 2020 class of MARBIO 488 became its own bubble.

Prior to their arrival at the FHL campus, students needed to take a COVID test and receive a negative result. Once on San Juan Island, they again had to test negative before gaining access to indoor facilities and laboratories. The class of 10 was divided into two smaller groups or “pods” that they would be living with for the next three weeks. Whenever they weren’t in their dormitories, everyone was required to wear a mask and maintain six feet of social distancing. In order to further minimize risk, students spent the first day in their pods out in the field and attending outdoor presentations given by FHL’s resident scientists while they awaited their second test results.

José Guzman instructing the class from the FHL dock.
José Guzman instructing the class from the FHL dock. Dan DiNicola

MARBIO 488 (Marine Biology in the Field), is designed to enhance students’ practical knowledge of marine organismal and habitat diversity, and oceanographic processes, with an emphasis on the interaction of biological, geomorphological, and physical facets of the nearshore marine ecosystem of the San Juan Islands. Through a series of interdisciplinary training modules that integrate both field and laboratory research, the class prepares students to frame, design, and conduct their own research projects that are relevant to the San Juan Island ecosystem.

With their newly honed skill set, students were tasked with developing a novel hypothesis and an experiment to address it. The class was given free rein of FHL’s resources and equipment to complete their projects. The change of pace from months of online coursework to onsite experiential learning was welcome for students and instructors alike, who were eager to learn and to teach in person.

“I had this picture in my mind that it would be really, really hard [with the COVID-19 precautions], but the whole experience was fantastic, easy, and smooth,” said José Guzman, an Assistant Teaching Professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and the Marine Biology program, and MARBIO 488’s instructor. “Morale for the course was through the roof. This was the first time students had a blank canvas to do their own research, applying all of the tools and knowledge that they have acquired during their undergraduate years.”

Some of the COVID-19 related changes worked out so well—like spending the first-day outside in the field—that Guzman wants to incorporate them into future summer intensives.

I had a great time at FHL! It was a much more personalized experience than a regular class on campus or Zoom. There were so many seasoned people there who were studying things I’m interested in, and they were all willing to share their knowledge and resources. Any organisms you wanted to study, you could just go out at low tide and find, or like we did sometimes, just reach off the dock and snag some jellies, shrimp, or kelp. It was such an amazing opportunity, I would love to go back and study there again.


Jacquelynn O’Maley, Marine Biology senior


Andy Ni examining his experimental tanks outside of one of the labs.
Andy Ni examining his experimental tanks outside of one of the labs. Dan DiNicola

The course is predominantly taken by seniors at the culmination of their undergraduate education. The result is a strong cohort dynamic, formed by students who have shared classes and built friendships for much of their collegiate careers.

“It was pretty clear from the beginning that we couldn’t teach this class online,’ said Guzman. It is the culmination of their experience as undergraduate students of marine biology, and we want them to apply all the “baggage of knowledge” that they’ve carried for three or four years out into the field. The idea is that they have to go through the scientific method: observe, question, and design an experiment. A lot of creativity, freedom, and enthusiasm is generated during that process; it wouldn’t be the same if students were at home.

The experiments the students conducted were varied, ranging from sea cucumber behavior to the predation of prawns, from macroalgae oxygen production to stress in sea urchins.

Jacquelynn O'Maley feeding kelp to urchins in the lab
Jacquelynn O’Maley feeding kelp to urchins in the lab.
“Chris Mantegna and I set up a huge experiment to study the effects of light and temperature on one group of sea urchins as well as the effects of having a sunflower seastar, a major predator of the urchins, present in ambient and heated temperature groups. We had 48 urchins total and one seastar. That was a lot of mouths to feed!” Dan DiNicola


A small sea star in an open hand
Montineze Johnson shows off one of the smaller sea stars from his experiment. Dan DiNicola

At the end of the course, the students did transition back to their computers for the data analysis module, where they learned how to process and visualize the data they had collected from their experiments. They finished by writing a scientific abstract and giving an oral presentation. Many of the students will submit their research to the upcoming UW undergraduate research symposium,

Guzman has no doubt that the students got the most out of their time at FHL—even with the added COVID-19 safety precautions this year. “We got the full experience; we just had a full experience with masks on and six feet apart.”


These photos were taken during the summer quarter 2020, during which in-person classes were held under strict regulations and procedures for COVID-19 prevention; students studied and worked in proximity only to others in their household pods. See details regarding the FHL COVID-19 Prevention Plan on the Friday Harbor Labs website.