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Ocean Studies Program, Maine Maritime Academy

Lauren Sahl, Ocean Studies, Maine Maritime Academy


The Ocean Studies program at Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) educates students in Marine Science and Marine Biology and teaches service courses to students in other majors. Our goal with our majors is to give them the skill base to design experiments, the knowledge base to understand scientific results and place them into a broader context, and the communication skills needed to articulate science in a variety of forums. In our service courses we strive to educate students in the big concepts in the Earth Sciences, especially Oceanography, and to show them the relevance of this knowledge to their lives and professions. MMA has recently embarked on a new initiative, to make sure that all graduates are grounded in environmental awareness and sustainability. My goal in attending this workshop is to explore the options for doing this.

In 1990 Maine Maritime Academy, seeking to diversify offerings, started the Corning School of Ocean Studies. This was the first mostly "academic" department at the college. Prior to 1990 the school was dedicated to graduating students to be deck officers and engineers on merchant vessels and the curricula focused on practical education for those careers. Declining enrollment in these programs prompted the addition of a new major that would not only attract different students, but also attract more women. An Ocean Studies program was a natural fit for the school, considering its focus, location and resources. The Corning School of Ocean Studies initially offered one major, Ocean Studies, eventually diversifying with two majors. The Marine Science program is multidisciplinary with foundation courses in biology, chemistry, physics and geology. Each student takes four core courses in oceanography and advanced electives in oceanography, physical and biological sciences. The Marine Biology program is similar to other undergraduate Biology programs, with many of the courses focused on marine organisms.

The strength of the Ocean Study program is a tiered course sequence that builds student skills and knowledge to the point where, as juniors, they are ready to design their own scientific experiment and, as seniors, execute the experiment and report the results to the community. The experiment planning and execution is done in a pair of courses. In the first course students write a proposal for their study. In the process of writing the proposal they are reading and discussing the scientific literature, doing a pilot project to refine their methodology, writing with lots of feedback and being challenged to become active scientists. In the second course students complete their experiments. This is followed by data analysis, interpretation of the data and finally presenting their finished projects as a scientific report and a poster presentation.

This course sequence has evolved over many years. Originally it was a one semester course taught by one instructor and now it is two semesters long, team taught by two with other faculty supervising individual student projects. Some of this evolution was driven by challenges presented by the students. Perhaps our institution is unusual, but many of our students have weak communication skills. By increasing the length of the course to two semesters we have time to collect drafts of writing, critique them, have the student rewrite and critique again. We have also found that with two instructors making much the same comments on student writing, and being consistent in demanding good writing, students are more likely to heed the advice. Through this process we have observed students become better writers and clearer thinkers.

Maine Maritime Academy is at a turning point. We have a new president who has made a commitment to adding an environmental/sustainability component to each student's education. The service courses, discussed above, and the Marine Science and Marine Biology courses address the environment and sustainability but the president is calling for a more focused and comprehensive initiative. Most of our graduates in Engineering, Transportation and Business go to work in shipping or business. This will put many of them in positions where decisions about resources are made. Graduates in Marine Science and Marine Biology often start their careers with government agencies, consulting firms, academia, or in education. Some of them have advanced to running labs, starting businesses, becoming lawyers, working for the U.S. House of Representatives, running research vessels, etc. In other words, they have an impact in many facets of public life. Our challenge is to design sustainability education that will engage students while in college, and give them tools to make well-reasoned decisions once they are in the workplace.

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