Virtual education? Athena Rycyk is a pro

Professor Athena Rycyk with students from her first-year seminar.

By Abby Weingarten

Athena Rycyk, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and marine science at New College, has a passion for a marine mammal research. Whether she is studying Florida manatees or engaging her students in online science competitions, the New College alumna is deeply invested in the preservation of ocean species (especially those in her hometown of Sarasota).

And, as New College moves to a remote learning atmosphere during the coronavirus outbreak, Rycyk is at the forefront of virtual education. She has been getting students and faculty members involved in something all month called March Mammal Madness (an annual online tournament of simulated combat competition among mammals).

According to its mission statement, the 2013-founded game helps educate participants about “interspecies interactions, the importance of ecological context, how natural selection has shaped adaptations, and conservation management of endangered species.”

Rycyk loves it because it’s an interactive learning tool that offers strategic thinking for scientists.

“It lends itself really well to a remote format, and it’s led by over a dozen biologists with over 4,500 educators across the world participating this year. Right now, there are nine faculty/staff members and 12 students from New College playing,” Rycyk said. “I started at New College last year and I did this with my students in my marine mammal biology course. It has that competitive flavor of sports and tournaments but it also combines their interest in biology, so it’s definitely a great learning tool and it’s fun (and popular).”

The final battle is in early April (last year, the mammalian winner of the cyber competition was the Bengal tiger). Rycyk is currently exploring a way to keep the March Mammal Madness togetherness going even when students and faculty are apart.

“Last year, we had our championship party in a classroom in the natural sciences building. This year, we’ll find a way to remotely hold our championship party that still has that sense of community of watching the final battle together,” Rycyk said.

Rycyk’s excitement about marine biology is infectious. She teaches biology, ecology, acoustics and oceanography, and her personal research centers on Florida sea life. She is interested in the acoustic ecology of Sarasota Bay, including temporal and spatial patterns in sound production by bottlenose dolphins, manatees and soniferous fish. She recently gave a lecture at New College called “Integration of Laboratory and Field Studies of Florida Manatees.”

“I’m working with an amazing group of researchers to synthesize manatee hearing and behavior research, both in a laboratory setting and in the field, to apply it to the problem of manatee-boat collisions,” Rycyk said. “About 53 percent of adult mortality in manatees is caused by boat strikes, and adult survival is incredibly important because they’re the ones that are reproductively active (that impacts the longevity of the species). My first project with manatees, in fact, was my undergraduate thesis at New College.”

As New Colleges changes and adapts to a socially-distanced curriculum, Ryck sees opportunity.

“Whenever you have limits, it also inspires creativity. There are lots of fun, educational activities you can do outside the classroom,” Rycyk said. “And there are many biologically-focused ways to explore the world from our computers, like looking at live nature/wildlife cameras on explore.org. We’ll be using those tools in the classroom and finding new ways to learn.”

Visit some of Rycyk’s favorite online wildlife sites on explore.org:

Wildlife in South Africa

Manatees in Blue Spring

Bald Eagle Nest

Bird feeder in Panama

Panda cubs at Happiness Village

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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