Inspiring community college students to pursue a career in ocean and earth sciences


Contributed by Johanna Wren

Ever wonder what questions community college STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students ask when taken on a tour of a research vessel?

“Are all beds the same size?”, posed a five-foot tall student standing next to a 6-foot fellow student, as they inspected the state rooms in the R/V Ka‘imikai-O-Kanaloa.

Or, one of my personal favorites: “Can I drive the boat!?”

Each summer, a score of Kapi‘olani Community College (KCC) students meet every day for six weeks to immerse themselves in math and other STEM subjects as part of the KCC STEM Summer Bridge program, HāKilo II. For the past three summers, C-MORE and SOEST from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa have been invited to spend one week with these students, introducing them to ocean and earth science careers through hands-on experiences.

HāKilo II students on a field trip to R/V KOK at Snug Harbor. Photo credit: Heidi Needham.

HāKilo II students on a field trip to R/V KOK at Snug Harbor. Photo credit: Heidi Needham.

The theme throughout the week is Learning by Doing, so we embark on field trips, engage in career exercises, and interact with graduate students and professionals in STEM fields. Our goal is to help the students discover their passions, and urge them to follow those passions in their professional careers. I first got involved with HaKilo II’s SOEST week as a graduate research assistant with the C-MORE Education office in 2013. I have since helped to organize and lead the event each summer, as the intensive week of career exploration has become one of my favorite summer events.

Learning By Doing: Field trips!

“Bet you didn’t know you got a mouthful of critters every time you get in the ocean!” said peer-mentor Dan to a student while looking at what they caught in a plankton tow.

Learning by Doing is done best outside of a classroom, so we take the students on multiple fieldtrips. For example, during these field trips, students figure out how the Hawaiian Islands were formed, and why hillsides and surrounding ocean look the way they do. Seeing first hand – and trying to figure out why – there is coral wedged between layers of basalt high above sea level, turns sea level rise from an abstract concept into a tangible one. Learning by doing, seeing and feeling is so much more powerful than being told how the world works.

Student and instructor during a geology field trip, talking about the formation of O‘ahu and sea level change at Lāna‘i lookout. Photo credit: Johanna Wren

Student and instructor during a geology field trip, talking about the formation of O‘ahu and sea level change at Lāna‘i lookout. Photo credit: Johanna Wren

Even though we have visited some of the same sites every year, there are always new things to discover, and students never fail to impress and surprise me with their curiosity and insightfulness. I really enjoy showing students what lives in the clear and seemingly empty waters near the beach. After conducting a plankton tow, while looking at the copepods and other animals in the water, students often wonder if they swallow all of those animals when they go swimming. It’s really nice to see even the most intractable student, who wouldn’t part from her smartphone for more than a minute, get excited about the land and sea around her.

Learning By Doing: Experience as a near-peer mentor

“Let’s ask Daren, he knows everything.” – A commonly overheard statement by a group of students when they ran into a problem they couldn’t solve.

Spending a summer studying subjects that often take students outside of their comfort zone can be intimidating and scary to many. At the same time, there is nothing more inspiring than connecting with an individual you identify with, who shares your background or interest. This is where the near-peer mentors like Dan and Daren come in. Each year, a handful of senior KCC students, many of whom participated in HāKilo II in previous years, act as peer-mentors and play a pivotal role in inspiring and engaging students. Students can identify with a mentor who went through the program just last year, and who comes from a similar cultural and/or academic background. The students are less reserved with their questions, and the peer-mentors themselves develop into teachers with enthusiasm and confidence.

Students in HāKilo II learning about seagliders, and how to combine an interest in engineering with a love for the ocean, from Sarah Searson. Photo credit: Johanna Wren

Students in HāKilo II learning about seagliders, and how to combine an interest in engineering with a love for the ocean, from Sarah Searson, a sea-going marine technician. Photo credit: Johanna Wren

I especially like witnessing the progression from student one year to peer-mentor the following year. Watching them go from shy and unsure students to outgoing, empowered, and confident in their new role as peer-mentor is motivating. And what I always find remarkable is how humble the peer-mentors are: they all have an ‘if I can do it, you can do it’ attitude. Peer-mentors take on the roles of a leader, educator, and mentor, and they not only inspire the students, they inspire me as well.

Learning by Doing: Networking with people paid to pursue their passion

“Man, that’s the closest I’ve been to an astronaut!” said one student after talking to a geology professor working on the Curiosity Mission with NASA.

Instead of reciting statistics and course requirements, which often become overwhelming, we introduce the students to career professionals in a variety of fields, from surf forecasters to ocean engineers. Students “talk story” with 20 different professionals, hearing – and often seeing – firsthand what that career entails and what kind of education they need to get there.

HāKilo II students talking with a career professional, Kimball Millikan, about wave buoys and ocean engineering. Photo credit: Johanna Wren.

HāKilo II students talking with a career professional, Kimball Millikan, about wave buoys and ocean engineering. Photo credit: Johanna Wren.

Once students realize that many of the professionals they talked to get paid to surf, dive or hike (common hobbies among the students), their enthusiasm skyrockets. The type of questions they ask changes from general (e.g. “What kind of degree do you have?”) to specific (e.g. “What subject would you recommend that I focus on to get your job?”). The dedication that the professionals show not only to their profession but also to sharing their passion with young scientists is profound. At the end of the week, we ask the professionals to give one take home message to the students, and it is universally: “You work too much not to love what you do.”

The best part about this program for me each year is when students discover that their interests don’t have to stay hobbies, but that they can become their careers. A few weeks ago, I ran into one of the students who participated in HāKilo II two years ago and was a peer-mentor last year. When I first met her in 2013 she intended to major in Nursing. Since then, she has changed her focus, transferred to UH Mānoa’s Dept. of Oceanography Global Environmental Sciences program, and participated in marine biology and oceanography summer research experiences both in the U.S. and abroad. She is a true inspiration and role model, and I’m so honored to have had a small part in helping her find her passion.

Johanna Wren is a PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography in the Toonen-Bowen (ToBo) Lab at Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her research focuses on larval dispersal and population connectivity of reef fish using a biophysical modeling approach. She is interested in identifying biophysical drivers around the Hawaiian Islands that shape the connectivity patterns seen in reef fish communities today.


Climate Science for Marshallese High School Teachers



Contributed by Michelle Tigchelaar

As a climate modeler, I mostly experience climate change through graphs and figures, scientific papers and the long-term projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. At times the reality of climate change becomes more tangible, like when we went on a field trip to Mauna Loa and were presented with a 400 ppm CO2 air sample — the Keeling curve in action! But it wasn’t until I visited the Marshall Islands this June to contribute to the 2015 Climate Science Teaching Institute, that the painful truth of a changing climate truly hit home.

Majuro Atoll from above. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

Majuro Atoll from above. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

At an average elevation of 2 m above sea level, the narrow atoll islands of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and its population of 68,000 are at risk of near-constant inundation by the end of this century. Not much further down the road, the islands could disappear entirely. The injustice of this is enormous. Not only did the Marshallese do very little to contribute to the leading causes of climate change, they also do not have the resources that richer (i.e., more polluting) countries have to deal with its consequences. Recently, the RMI Ministry of Education added climate change education to the mandatory curriculum, so that its citizens will be better informed about what is happening to their islands and the world around them. In this context, COSEE Island Earth – with support from PREL and NSF Ocean Sciences – organized a workshop for high school teachers so that they will be equipped with knowledge and activities to use in their classrooms. I had the honor of teaching the physical climate science part of this workshop.

Teaching at this workshop proved to be challenging, for unexpected reasons. For starters, it was difficult to figure out what material to present on. How was I to  condense all the complexities of the climate system and climate change science into a few lectures that are understandable, relevant and comprehensive? Many of the attendants of our workshop were general science or biology teachers, so they had little prior knowledge of how the climate system works. Furthermore, while English is an official language of the Marshall Islands, most teachers were more comfortable in their own language — which was often, but not always, Marshallese (many teachers in the RMI come from other Pacific Islands such as Fiji, Micronesia or the Philippines). We also encountered cultural differences between teachers in the US and the Marshall Islands, with the latter seeming less vocal when questions arose. By starting with the material at the very beginning, building slowly, repeating key points and leaving ample room for questions, I hoped I was able to adequately convey the material.

Teaching about sea level rise projections at the College of the Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Dr. Judy Lemus.

Teaching about sea level rise projections at the College of the Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Dr. Judy Lemus.

In the US, decades of research and coordination have resulted in the availability of a wealth of papers, reports and websites that present scientists and the general public with detailed information about past climate measurements and future climate projections (think for instance of the National Climate Assessment or NOAA’s El Niño Portal). By comparison, a lot less is known about climate variability and change in Pacific Island nations, so I had a hard time finding easily digestible information to share with the teachers. Fortunately, the international research community is slowly starting to pay more attention to this region of the globe. I was thankful for the help of Drs. Mark Merrifield and Phil Thompson from the UH Sea Level Center, who shared and explained their work on sea level rise in the Pacific Islands. More importantly, some great local organizations were able to present at the workshop as well. By involving local organizations, we were able to facilitate the creation of (hopefully) lasting connections, so that exchange of climate knowledge can also happen outside of this workshop and in years to come.

SeaGrant’s Karl Fellenius showing the class instrumentation from the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) that is moored in the harbor of Majuro. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

SeaGrant’s Karl Fellenius showing the class instrumentation from the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) that is moored in the harbor of Majuro. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

During the workshop, one of our aims was to come up with activities that teachers can easily reproduce in their classrooms. On my end, I demonstrated: 1. how to create El Niño in a tank (with food coloring and a blow dryer); 2. why sea level rises due to thermal expansion and the melting of land-, but not sea-, ice (with water, clay, ice and a heat lamp); 3. where and by how much sea level is expected to rise in the future (using the online NOAA sea level rise viewer); 4. how moon phases work (with styrofoam balls and a lamp); and 5. how to measure humidity and demonstrate convection (again using ice and food coloring and thermometers). We thought we had done a pretty decent job at coming up with accessible activities, until we learned that some schools do not have the resources we expected them to have. For instance, some schools on the more remote islands of the nation only have one computer, or no steady electricity source. One teacher told us that they don’t usually have access to ice, except for when a fishing boat stops in port! Luckily we had brought supplies with us to hand out to the teachers, so that they could at least do some of the activities.

Demonstrating why we see different phases of the moon. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

Demonstrating why we see different phases of the moon. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

All these challenges aside, I left the workshop with many positive impressions. One would think that the prospect of a disappearing homeland and the terrible injustices of climate change and socio-economic inequality would leave a community despondent and angry. Perhaps a lesser people would be. But I found the Marshallese teachers to be eager to learn and open-hearted. Many of them went to great lengths to attend this workshop, and all appeared to be incredibly thankful for the opportunity and excited to teach the material to their students — with whatever resources they have. I was particularly inspired by one teacher, an older gentleman from Januit. He truly grasped that dealing with climate change in these remote islands is not only an issue for international politicians, but also an opportunity for islanders to increase resiliency and battle poverty by taking better care of reefs, land and people. When these kinds of insights enter into school curricula, that is the power of education. So in the end, while I hope that the Marshallese high school teachers were able to learn from me and my knowledge of climate change, I am also grateful for all that they taught me.

Michelle Tigchelaar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Her research focuses on modeling the response of the climate system to long-term forcing over the past 800,000 years. She also enjoys putting science to good use and being a student activist. 


To Jargon or not to Jargon


Contributed by Elisha Wood-Charlson

Jargon, as defined by Google, consists of “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” So, you can imagine why jargon is a natural target for science communication training and workshops. Hey, science jargon even has its own April Fool’s spoof article.

Well, as it turns out, defining jargon and identifying jargon create a bit of inherent irony. A word is only considered ‘jargon’ when it isn’t well understood, so when are science words ‘jargon’ and when are they not? Google’s definition suggests that jargon can be specific to a group, and not necessarily restricted to a technical field. In addition, Google gives the entertaining synonym of “slang”, which begs the question – are scientists actually speaking our own form of “Science Jive”?

One of the most challenging parts of science communication is understanding your audience well enough to choose vocabulary that will communicate your science accurately while still getting your message across. Therefore, we need to start thinking about our “Science Jive” in layers. How far removed is our target audience from our science field?

The Russian Doll of Science Jive
Nesting Dolls (Photo Credit: James Lee)

Nesting Dolls (Photo Credit: James Lee)

As with all science communication efforts, you must first understand your audience(s) before you determine how much jargon you can layer on. The smallest, innermost ring is your peer group (you are the doll in the center). Your peer audience will include members of your lab group, your collaborators, and even your fellow participants in a domain-specific session at a conference. Almost everything in this ring may be considered jargon to a general audience, who resides in the largest, outermost doll layer. And, although some of the jargon translations from the far inner ring to the far outer ring may be the most challenging (discussed later), the dolls in the middle are where things get really interesting. How well do you know your audience two rings removed? For example, I recently attended the 2015 AAAS conference in San Jose, CA. Having never attended an AAAS conference before, I was surprised at the breadth of science topics presented. They ranged from looking at the effect of epigenetics on the brain to 3-D printing of 4-D mathematical models to microbial oceanography, my personal ring of Science Jive. So, how do you know when to jargon and when not to jargon?

The best way to figure out your audience is to understand where they exist in the science communication space. Do they read popular science articles, like those in Scientific American or Discover? If so, getting familiar with those journals (if you aren’t already) will help you determine which jargon level you should speak to. For example, in situations where “addition of viral concentrates resulted in decreased photosynthetic activity” might not work, something like “after adding more viruses, the cultures started dying” might be perfect. From another perspective, if you are writing something for a government office, you might consider getting in touch with whomever is in charge of science-related issues. Depending on their background, they may only be one or two jargon rings away. Or, if their background isn’t in the sciences, they may comfortably reside in the far outer general public ring.

Communicating Science Jive to the Outer Doll

Have you tried explaining your research to a family member? Megumi Chikamoto had a great post (4 Feb 2015) on Real Science at SOEST! blog about jargon, relating to her 7 year old son and making her message more understandable to a broader audience.

Translating jargon takes a bit of trial and error. Pick a prominent jargon word in your specialization and start trying out alternative vocabulary with the lab down the hall, fellow students at a departmental seminar, or with other science departments that meet up for pick-up soccer games after work. In the end, you may still end up with a word(s) that can’t be captured at the level of accuracy you require. Another strategy is to develop an analogy for your research. Can you capture the dispersal model or biogeochemical flux pathway in a metaphor or image? For example, Donn Viviani, a graduate student in C-MORE, is able to transform his research into the simple process of making a cup of tea!

In the end, only you can decide when to jargon and when not to jargon, and it will take practice. However, there should also be a collective effort by every science specialization to establish some translated terms that are acceptable replacements for their domain. In some areas, such as climate change, this is already happening. But we shouldn’t wait for a social movement to motivate us! Scientists are people too, and we should be making an effort to communicate using language that can be understood by our audiences.


Other resources
Scientific Jargon, Thompson Writing Program handout by Jordana Rosenberg 2012
Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public, log post by Andrew David Thaler at Southern Fried Science
Words Matter, AGU blog post by Callan Bentley

Elisha M. Wood-Charlson has a PhD in marine science, and has worked in a variety of research areas including coral symbioses, marine viruses, and viruses in corals. She is currently testing out life as a science communicator and is finding the creative latitude enjoyable. She works for the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) as an educator, designing #scicomm training for graduate students, postdocs, and early career researchers (check out the new Science Communication Portfolio training guide on the SOEST website!). She is also managing the EarthCube Oceanography and Geobiology Environmental ‘Omics (ECOGEO) Research Coordination Network (RCN), which demands structured communication between the scientists asking the difficult ‘omics questions and the bioinformaticians making the tools to help answer them.

Networking and events at a major scientific conference

The biennial Ocean Sciences Meeting kicks off this upcoming Sunday with talks, workshops, mixers, and events galore. It is hosted by three major oceanographic associations (ASLO, AGU, and TOS) and it is an event where you not only showcase the work you’ve been doing with an international audience but where you network with peers and scientists from various organizations and universities.  As we think about what we might be doing after our various degrees, it is important to prepare ourselves for the networking madness that will occur at events such as this one. So in preparation, we decided to post some links. Hope they are helpful!

Some Important Tips to Networking at a Conference

  • Student events page:
    • Includes student workshops, student mixer, and announcement of a special Nerd Nite happening during the conference week
  • Keynote Address:
    • Kick off the meeting on Sunday by listening to Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey, a Polynesian National Geographic Explorer and the first female Fellow in the history of the National Geographic Society.
  • Plenary Talks:
    • Tuesday- Speakers include local professor Bob Richmond, and there will be a panel discussion on ‘Why aren’t they listening?’ to scientists about climate and environmental science which will be a panel of experts including NPR journalist Richard Harris, science communication professional Christine O’Connell, Director of Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication Edward Maibach, and President and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific Jerry Schubel.
    • Thursday- Speakers include Roger Hanlon and Mary Jane Perry
  • Social Events:
    • Opening mixer reception, beer breaks, poster session receptions, Tuesdayevening Jam session at Mai Tai bar, 5k Fun Run at Ala Moana ParkWednesday morning, Nerd Nite, and an opportunity for RV Falkor Tours are detailed here!
  • Facebook page and Twitter hashtag (#2014OSM) and profile (@2014OSM)
    • Tweeting live from talks is a good way to get people involved who couldn’t attend the conference!
  • Presenting a poster?  Make it available online for more exposure throughePosters!
 Drop us a note or write in comments if you come across other useful links! See you at the Convention Center!