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Students Building Technologies Builds a Better Workforce

Liesl Hotaling,
Vice President for Education,
Marine Technology Society


Publications such as “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” and “Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited” create a sobering profile of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the U.S. The country continues to lose its competitive edge in math and science. Consequences of this decline are manifold, impacting workforce readiness and innovation capabilities, and worsening the decline of scientific literacy among the general population.

The nation needs a diverse, knowledgeable and adequately prepared workforce to enhance understanding of the marine environment and make decisions regarding complex ocean and coastal issues. The 21st century ocean technology workforce will require a strong understanding of oceanography and the ability to integrate science concepts, engineering methods and sociopolitical considerations. Resolving complex ocean issues related to economic stability, environmental health and national security will require a workforce with diverse skills and backgrounds.

To address necessary technology skills, engage under-represented audiences and broaden the U.S. technological talent base, students must be provided with more opportunities to learn practically, rather than theoretically—through self-motivated discovery, as opposed to didactic lecturing—and collaboratively using technology-based problem solving.

Students learn best if they are immersed in complex experiences and are given the opportunity to actively process what they have learned. Unfortunately, only 16 percent of instruction in U.S. classrooms could be characterized as application-oriented.

To assist students in achieving content mastery, teachers must create learning environments that present students with challenging problems to demonstrate their knowledge through application. This emphasis on application through design has been informed by research on the use of design for learning complex and interrelated ideas. The process of building ocean technologies in classrooms can introduce authentic and engaging, ill-structured problems that reflect the complexity of the real world. Since students must engage in inquiry, research and design in collaborative groups, they end up designing tangible, meaningful artifacts. The actual process of design anchors the learning process, and developing, building or modeling ocean technologies provides engaging content for the experience.

An example is the Student Enabled Network of Sensors for the Environment using Innovative Technology (SENSE IT, www.senseit.org) project, which brings real-world environmental sensor networks into the classroom. SENSE IT challenges students to construct and deploy sensors and interpret data from their own sensor network to monitor water quality. SENSE IT integrates fundamental STEM principles and provides students the opportunity to build and understand their own sensors from scratch, demystifying the “black box” effect often associated with commercial technologies.

In the SENSE IT activities, complex concepts and relationships are broken down into their most elemental aspects. Sensors are assembled from fundamental materials and easily understandable elemental building blocks. Constructing, calibrating, programming and deploying sensors, and wireless sensor networks, engenders a deeper understanding of the environmental quantities being measured, as well as using STEM concepts in an integrated way. Additionally, it affords students a hands-on opportunity to interact with “the tools of the trade” of real research scientists and engineers, exposing students to skill sets required for the 21st century STEM workforce.

With applications of instrumentation, including measurement, processing and analysis, which are the themes of this month’s issue, at the heart of ocean research and economics, it is crucial for students interested in studying the marine environment to have robust hands-on research and internship opportunities to apply their knowledge practically within these sectors. Implementing and leveraging these active learning experiences will build a stronger future workforce.

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.