Ocean Tracks - College Edition: Lessons from a 2YC MSI

As an oceanography instructor, I aim to engage students with authentic data, particularly when introducing concepts or processes. One of my primary learning objectives for introductory students is to interpret and critically analyze data presented to them. Data interpretation has become an important 21st century skill for students who may only complete a single college level science course. Oceanographic data can be visualized in so many ways: depth profiles, spatial scales (local, regional, global), temporal scales (daily, seasonally, annually), anomalies, etc.  For introductory students, interpreting oceanographic data can be a significant obstacle in understanding ocean processes.

Currently, I teach Introduction to Oceanography at Fullerton College (FC), a 2-year minority serving institution (2YC MSI) located in northern Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. The overwhelming number of students who enroll in my course are fulfilling a natural science requirement for transfer to a 4-year institution. From an informal survey of FC students enrolled in oceanography, the majority of students have not completed college-level math or English courses. In fact, most FC students have had very limited exposure to science and the oceans.

This presents obstacles for both myself and students when exploring the data-driven nature of oceanography and science, in general.  I quickly learned that many FC students simply become overwhelmed when it comes to interpreting visual data, e.g. graphs, charts, plots, etc. After all, most students conception of oceanography comes from charismatic megafauna of the oceans. Who could blame them, given all the multimedia and entertainment dedicated to marine life. Enter Ocean Tracks - College Edition (OT-CE).

Initially, I began using Ocean Tracks to demonstrate the importance of coastal upwelling for two major reasons: 1) Ocean Tracks puts upwelling into context and clearly identifies key characteristics of upwelled waters and; 2) Ocean Tracks demonstrates that upwelling is a dynamic process and provides an excellent example of the bottom up food web in the open ocean.  Within the module, as students track tuna, it is extremely important for keeping students engaged and facilitates a deeper understanding of ocean processes.  Throughout this particular module, I have often been asked, “Are these real animals?”  My response is often, “Of course, they are.  Why else would we be studying them?”

Last fall, I was invited to participate in the OT-CE pilot program, which I thought would be very beneficial for myself and FC students.  Through the pilot program, I was much more deliberate in critically analyzing student outcomes from the OT-CE curriculum. My goal was to use  two OC-TE modules to complement a primary production nutrient addition experiment and demonstrate the significance of primary production on tuna in the Northern Pacific.  From my previous experience, I knew that Ocean Tracks would:

  • tie together physical, chemical, and biological aspects of ocean processes
  • engage students with real data through a guided inquiry
  • compare results to published literature
  • contextualize ocean processes for introductory students, otherwise their attitude is “Why should I care?”

Overall, I was very satisfied with FC students’ outcomes even though many students did not satisfactorily complete every learning outcomes listed in the OT-CE modules. Additionally, students were able to put into context the nutrient addition experiment after completing the Ocean Tracks assignments. However, the curriculum was not without its challenges. For example, most FC students did enough background/preparation which meant that I had to guide their analyses for completing open-ended questions. A couple of technical issues came up as well. Both the web browsers and/or the network were overwhelmed at times, which meant the interface lagged or crashed the browser completely.  In a 3+ hour lab, many students also experienced ‘module fatigue’ and grew tired of completing identical tasks for several individual animals. 

Overall, my experience with OT-CE for me as an instructor has been extremely valuable and I found OT-CE effective for engaging a range of FC students. OT-CE is flexible enough for me to use in lecture class as well as in a lab setting. After working with EDC's Oceans of Data Institute and other faculty members in revising the curriculum, I am confident that the revised OT-CE curriculum will engage college students to investigate and apply several oceanography concepts to the behaviors of top predators.  After having worked on both sides of the curriculum development, I feel comfortable tailoring the OT-CE modules to guide FC students in scientific inquiry. I highly encourage other instructors to explore using OT-CE as it does appeal to more than just introductory level students. I look forward to continue to use OT-CE modules along with other inquiry-based activities. 

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