SAGE Musings: Developing Students' Science Identities in an Oceanography Course

Lynsey LeMay, Thomas Nelson Community College
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published May 30, 2019 9:55am

A while back, at one of our SAGE gatherings, after a discussion on science identity and seeing some of Jan's scientist profiles, I knew I needed to be more intentional with introducing scientists and the diversity of career options to my students. I share lots of stories in class about days in the field and lab, and try to provide a realistic view of the life of a scientist. However, when it comes down to it, my students are seeing one White woman and her colleagues, most of whom are also White, do science. Most of my students are certainly not White women! While I'm slowly infusing science identity throughout all of the classes that I teach, I've been most successful, and most intentional, in my Oceanography course.

Early in the semester, usually within the first two or three laboratory periods, students complete a lab assignment I call "Science in Action." In this assignment, students are tasked with exploring oceanography-related careers. They discover the research currently being done both at our neighboring marine science institute, Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), and out on ocean-going research vessels.

By the middle of the semester, students are introduced to an assignment entitled "What Oceanographers Do." For this assignment, each student is asked to select an oceanographer from a list of scientist profile websites and to create their own 1-2 slide, 3-4 minute presentation about the scientist. This presentation includes the scientist's educational pathway, where they are currently employed, their research interests and why it is important work, and anything else the student finds interesting about the scientist they have chosen. This presentation serves two purposes: 1) continued career exploration while also learning about often non-traditional and rather circuitous educational pathways and 2) practice in both presentation preparation and oral communication. Student comments indicate that these presentations are enlightening, highlighting the fact that not all scientists start out on a scientific track. They remark that they would be interested in some of these scientific careers that they had previously never associated with science, like research vessel captains, aquarists, and museum educators.

During the course of the semester, students are also engaged in doing science! We are out in the field about five to seven times during the semester, dependent upon weather of course. Students use scientific tools; meet scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science; work off of piers, docks, and the Thomas Nelson skiff, the R/V Investigator; and do data analysis and laboratory work. Students consistently remark that not only do they feel that they learn and retain the material better, but that they are having fun!

Of course, not all students change majors. However, all students develop a better understanding of what doing science really means. Some students do change majors, and in many cases these students choose the geosciences because they now know what they can do in the field, that there are others like them, and that not everyone follows a straight and narrow path. As my student Shaun said this semester, as he kept creeping his way over to steer the boat, "I could actually see myself doing this." And guess what, he now plans to pursue something involved with the geosciences!

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