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Science and scuba unite in unique W&M class


Students come to William & Mary expecting to receive a well-rounded liberal arts education. For most, that means taking a variety of classes in areas outside their majors and gaining exposure to unfamiliar ideas.

Each semester, however, a lucky few choose to go below and beyond the rest by diving into the College’s scuba course.

Led by Jim McNeal, an adjunct kinesiology instructor and diving instructor with more than 30 years of teaching experience, the W&M scuba course enables students to put scientific principles from other classes into practice while learning how to breathe underwater.

An understanding of how physics principles including pressure, buoyancy, heat transfer, acoustics and optics operate underwater is essential to safe diving, and the academic portion of the scuba class helps students master these concepts before putting them into practice underwater.

According to McNeal, scuba certification is a three-step process consisting of classroom academics, confined water dives in a swimming pool and culminating with open-water dives in a lake or the ocean.

“The William & Mary class covers the academic and pool portion out of the three, preparing people for the open water dives. You learn all the academics and knowledge that you need for the dives, then you learn the skills in the pool,” McNeal said.

“We start from the very basics of breathing underwater. We talk about clearing the mask in case it gets bumped and some water gets in it. We teach them how to share air underwater if there’s an emergency, and mostly get them really comfortable with the equipment … really, everything they need to know to dive safely,” he explained.

Despite two 8 a.m. lecture sessions during the weekend-long course, students are attracted to the scuba class because it offers a departure from typical William & Mary coursework.

“I’m taking the class because it’s something a little different. It’s a hands-on approach to a different subject,” said Will Manion ’16. “I’m on the men’s swim team here at the College, so I figured it’d be something fun and different to do in the water.”

The uniqueness of the course likewise attracted Ben Guthrie ’14, who sees it as an exciting way to round out his senior year.

“It’s a really fun class, and that’s what William & Mary is all about. It’s a liberal arts education, and you can do what you want to do,” he said.

According to McNeal, around 90 students take the William & Mary course each semester, and of those, between 50 and 60 continue on to the open water dives needed for full certification.

A scuba education, however, does not end with certification. McNeal notes that William & Mary also has a recreational sports scuba club that allows students to continue their development as a diver.

Likewise, because scuba certification is for life, students beginning their training at William & Mary can look forward to a lifetime of adventures only a few will ever experience.

“Scuba is one of those things that allows you to do a lot after you graduate,” McNeal said. “This is something you can do for the rest of your life. It enriches your life tremendously.”

McNeal, who left a career as a marine biologist to pursue scuba full-time, speaks from personal experience.

“Scuba changes your life. It really does. It allows you to do things you’ve only dreamed of doing,” he said. “I can’t imagine life without scuba diving.”