Ocean Educator Preaches Value of Teaching A, B, Seas
WOODS HOLE, MASS. — FOR John Farrington, the point is as obvious as the ocean over his shoulder. The use of the seas as a means of teaching the fundamentals of science provides the vital, and too often missing, element of discovery in the scientific process for elementary and high school students. It is a theme throughout an interview with him on the subject of oceanic education."There is a tremendous excitement in studying the ocean and we must try and use this excitement to match the classwork and theoretical training about the oceans with hands-on discovery," says Dr. Farrington, associate director for education and dean of graduate studies at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "The first thing we tell students who come to us is that oceanography really depends on having a good foundation in the sciences. We suggest majoring in math, geology, biology, physics, or chemistry as undergraduates," says Farrington, whose background is in chemistry and chemical oceanography. Efforts to enlist students in these disciplines cannot be limited to the elite few, as has too often been the case in the last 20 years, but should "encompass all students," he says. Concerns about global warming, sea-level rise, and waste disposal have caused the public at large, and students in particular, to look beyond the current role we hold for the oceans, he says. It meshes completely with the upsurge in environmental interest that so far has characterized the beginning of the '90s. In addition to environmental concerns about the oceans, the study of the seas ties in with two other national concerns, he says. The United States needs a smarter work force that can successfully compete in a global economy. From the White House to the local classroom, the country has woken up to the fact that science, mathematics, and engineering education in the US, especially K-12 and the undergraduate years, is a national priority. "There are all sorts of employment opportunities in oceanography and oceanic engineering, from coastal engineering to deep-sea structures in the ocean that are wide open right now and will continue to be so on a worldwide basis for a long time," he says, so long as there are qualified workers and a technological infrastructure to support them. For many undergraduates, survey courses at the introductory level are the route to more specialized learning about the oceans, he says. These are courses that usually fulfill university science requirements for humanities and arts students. They give a clear idea how the oceans of the world are formed and how water moves around our planet from a biological, chemical, and physical point of view. Though survey courses do not require the rigor in math and physics necessary for all advanced oceanography courses, Farrington says, they often are interdisciplinary. The "interdisciplinary approach is a hook," he says and works just as effectively for public-school classes. It lets teachers "talk about the fundamentals of physics and gravity, when they ask why sea water sinks, how deep water circulates?" he says. About 20 years ago, teacher preparation divorced itself from the front lines of scientific research, he says. "They were abandoned by the scientists, and we basically washed a whole generation of teachers from really active involvement in front-line research. "Our challenge right now is to make the teachers of science and math in the school systems colleagues with the researchers, really and truly colleagues. Once we do that they will feel part of the science establishment of the US and that is the key," to better science education, he says. Farrington is quite optimistic in what he hears from graduate students at the oceanographic institution, who say they want more outlets in education. The institution can reach a significant number of teachers by bringing more teachers here and helping them with the new curricula that use the oceans in teaching math and science.