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

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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

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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.