STEM Student Experiences Aboard Ships (STEM SEAS)
Last summer I got the opportunity to sail on two research vessels through the new NSF funded program STEM Student Experiences Aboard Ships or STEM SEAS. I served as a graduate student mentor on the very first transit aboard the R/V Oceanus in May and as an instructor on the August transit aboard the R/V Siquliak. As an aspiring paleoceanographer, I was excited about the opportunity to experience life on a ship as sailing as a biostratigrapher aboard the JR is something I hope to accomplish during my graduate career. As an aspiring teacher and mentor, I was excited about the opportunity to get to know a promising group of undergraduates and share my passion for geoscience.
So, what exactly is STEM SEAS? STEM SEAS is an NSF funded program that takes advantage of empty berths on UNOLS research vessels during transits. UNOLS ships are operated out of universities across the country and sometimes when the ships travel from port to port in between scientific expeditions there is no science party on board. Our program brings undergraduates aboard the ships for a 6-10 day mobile classroom experience. The students received mini-lectures on topics like oceanography, climate change and micropaleontology and were able to participate in shipboard science like coring and the collection of plankton. The program works to address the low retention rates in STEM disciplines, the lack of diversity in the geoscience community, and the predicted workforce shortage in geosciences.
STEM SEAS targeted groups of students in times of transition to address the issue of low retention in STEM fields. Circumstances of transition include declaring or switching a major or advancing from a 2-year college to a 4-year college. At these times students may be without guidance or strong mentorship and are vulnerable to attrition, in other words dropping out of science majors. Aboard the ships we addressed these issues by talking about the best way to find mentors and reflecting on the types of support systems the students already had in place. Not to mention, being on a ship for the first-time fosters quality bonding time and the students made lasting relationships with each other that are sure to help them feel supported through the next phases in their academic careers.
Our program is dedicated to a broad view of diversity to include students with many identities currently underrepresented in STEM including race, gender, geographic location, institution type, ability and veteran/military status. STEM SEAS gives a diverse group of students the opportunity to explore geoscience in a hands-on fashion with close faculty mentors. It is not our hope that every student will switch their major to geoscience (although some do!) but that our students are empowered to see themselves incorporating science into their lives and careers in some way.
It’s unfortunate that while we live in a time where geoscience is in the news daily, in the form of discussions about climate change, sea level rise, floods, or earthquakes, many high school and college students will not take a geoscience class in their academic career. With a looming geoscience workforce shortage and the pressing issue of climate change, it is imperative that we empower our youth to engage with issues of climate and environment. Once our students return home or to their campuses, they must present some aspect of their STEM SEAS experience to their community. This ensures that STEM SEAS is not only introducing the students, but also their communities to geoscience.
What is next for STEM SEAS? After a very successful pilot year, STEM SEAS continued into summer 2017 on a transit down the east coast of the US. This transit will be open to undergraduates from an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Partnering with an HBCU is in line with the mission of STEM SEAS and we are excited to add another cohort of STEM SEAS students to our alumni community. To stay up to date, follow us on Facebook!