Students doing coring work aboard R/V Oceanus

New Ocean Science Option Builds Real-World Learning and Teamwork Skills for Undergraduates

In March 2015, a research cruise set out on Oregon State University's R/V Oceanus to collect multidisciplinary samples and data in an area known as the Umpqua River depocenter, a 40-kilometer stretch of mud on the central Oregon shelf. It's here that the Umpqua dumps loads of sediment that even waves can't wash away. The existence of the depocenter on the energetic Oregon margin sparks a host of questions about land-ocean connectivity, carbon cycling and sediment ecology.

To the casual observer, the outing might look like any other research cruise—except that the science team wasn't a group of PhD-riddled professors and sea-going techs. It was a group of eager undergraduates in Oregon State's new Ocean Science Option. Armed with two terms of classroom work, the students were the first in the program to test their field skills on Oceanus.

Rob Wheatcroft, Ocean Science program head and Rohm Professor of Oceanographic Education in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, said the emphasis on outside-the-classroom learning was intentional. "When we go out, we have to deal with the sea state. We don't feel well. It's a lot of work. How do you convey that in a class? You can't simulate sea sickness from a textbook," he said.

Groundswell of Support

When Wheatcroft came to Oregon State in 1998, he saw an opportunity. The university had droves of students and many talented professors yet no oceanography program to serve undergraduates. On top of that, undergraduate classes in his college (then the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences) were not always integrated.

"I came to OSU from an institution that basically gives received wisdom to a select few. I feel like education is more than just about the select few," he said.

In 2011, the college merged with geosciences to become the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and with it came a robust undergraduate population. The merger also created momentum for Wheatcroft's idea of reaching a broader audience. In the summer of 2014, the Ocean Science Option within the undergraduate Earth Sciences degree officially began.

The option's diverse curriculum builds on a foundation of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics while providing broad, quantitative training in marine environments—whether coastal mangroves in the tropics or the ice-covered Arctic Ocean.

Matt Conlin, a junior from Massachusetts and one of roughly 20 students enrolled in the new program, said a research stint with coastal hazards expert Peter Ruggiero convinced him to transition to the Ocean Science Option. "Doing this research made me fall in love with the coastal ocean system and realize that I want to study coastal oceanography in grad school and beyond," he said. "The new Ocean Science Option seemed to fit my interests, and learning about how all the moving parts interact with each other has been incredibly interesting for me."

How the Sausage is Made

Ship time on Oceanus was a high point for many students in the inaugural class, including Conlin.

"I was introduced to many oceanographic instruments (CTDs, box corers, gravity corers) that I had only read about in textbooks. Being able to get out in the field and actually see and work with them was awesome," he said.

First-year student Emma Armstrong agrees. "I truly enjoy hands-on experiences where I can learn what I am doing as I'm doing it," she said. Armstrong was even able to pass along her newfound ocean coring skills to Andrew Thurber, a benthic ecologist who accompanied the cruise. "Earlier when we were slow coring, I was helping Rob take the core out. After I did it a few times, Andrew asked if I could teach him how to do it. I was very proud!"

Wheatcroft says that getting students on the water allowed them to "see how the sausage is made." They were able to converse with scientists from a variety of disciplines, whether Andrew Thurber, Kim Bernard (a pelagic ecologist), or Wheatcroft himself (a marine geologist). The trip also exposed them to the importance of teamwork while working on a ship and the not-so-glamorous sides of field oceanography, like cleaning mud off the deck.

"I'm sure it was surprising to these students how much time you're using wrenches and screw drivers," Wheatcroft said. "But the good news is, you don't go out on a ship and do it alone. You might take samples back to your lab and spend ages by yourself, but it's a group effort to do field oceanography."

The Horizon Beyond

In the future, Wheatcroft hopes the college builds capacity by creating more upper-division oceanography courses and additional experiential learning opportunities. He would also like to see a capstone that allows seniors to conceive of and execute a rigorous research project.

But for now, the Ocean Science Option will continue to build cross-cutting skills that prepare students for diverse employment.

"Because we have a rigorous interdisciplinary program in science, you can think of it almost as a liberal science degree," Wheatcroft said. "I often say that you don't get hired for what you know. You get hired for what you know how to do. And so, can we give these students a skillset, a box of tools that they can bring to diverse problems? That's going to require getting them in the field, building an understanding of data analysis, learning how to formulate a research question and then working with others to answer it. That's what we're trying to do in this program."

For Ryan Schubert, a student in the new option who went on the Oceanus cruise, just two terms of curriculum were enough to convince him of a career in oceanography. He is already looking at the horizon beyond his undergraduate degree.

"Going into the trip, I was really nervous if oceanography was going to be the right career for me," he said. "After it, I realized there is nothing else I'd rather do."

Posted May, 2015

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