Water Center Research Scientists Lead Innovative Course on Lake Michigan

Monday, August 5, 2013

A new Field Methods in Great Lakes Oceanography course co-taught by three University of Michigan (U-M) Water Center research scientists is fulfilling a fundamental goal of the center to actively engage students in learning about the Great Lakes.

Based on feedback from students who took the inaugural two-week, two-credit class in Northern Michigan this past spring, the course more than succeeded in fulfilling this important role.

Through the course evaluation, one student said: “I learned more about the Great Lakes in two weeks than I have in my whole life.”

The overall student experience was greatly enhanced through an action-based methodology, which included Lake Michigan ship time aboard the Laurentian, an 80-foot, university-owned research vessell leased and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

 “I learned so much,” said another student, “I felt like I was doing the real work of an oceanographer.”

Based at the U-M Biological Station in Pellston, the course emphasized critical examination of field results within an ecosystem framework through lectures, group discussions, and extensive hands-on experience. The class was offered jointly through U-M’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

The course instructors from the Water Center (which is part of U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute) were Gary Fahnenstiel, Tom Nalepa, and Dave Schwab. All three scientists joined the Water Center this past year after retiring from NOAA, from which they each hold various lifetime achievement awards for their significant contributions to Great Lakes research. In fact, they are so renowned for their research accomplishments that students refer to them as “The Legends of NOAA.”

“Students in this class were engaged in hands-on field study with world-class scientists who also turned out to be world-class teachers,” says Water Center Director Allen Burton. “The Water Center is honored to be able to offer students such a transformative learning experience with these experts.”

The collaborative teaching didn’t stop with the three Water Center researchers. Additional instructors included Bob Shuchman, Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI); Guy Meadows, Great Lakes Research Center (GLRC); and Mike McCormick, Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER). These instructors each lectured and led field experiments based on their areas of expertise. Subjects covered included geology and physical oceanography, the lower food web, policy and management, nutrients and watersheds, and more.

“Students really got their money’s worth in this class,” Dave Schwab says. “Where else are you able to do one-on-one field work with so many experts, let alone on such a state-of-the-art research vessel? I know students were incredibly grateful for what they experienced. And, personally, I loved teaching the class.”

Gary Fahnenstiel developed the curriculum, syllabus, and overall plan for the class, which he says will most likely be repeated next year.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of the course is to see students fall in love with the Great Lakes—and hopefully, become lifelong stewards,” he says. “The Great Lakes really are one of the world's great natural resources, and students realize this all-the-more after completing the class.”

Graham Family Professor and Director of the Graham Institute Don Scavia touches on how the class came to be, and the importance of continuing it.

“There really is a gap in classes related to the Great Lakes right now, and early on in the Water Center’s development, the Erb Family Foundation and U-M Provost made it clear that they’d like to see the center fill this unmet need,” he says. “While this class was just a start, we look forward to offering more of these educational opportunities going forward.”

Knute Nadelhoffer, director of the U-M Biological Station, says he hopes to host the course at the U-M Biological Station again next year.

“The Great Lakes oceanography class was an incredible opportunity for students, and course evaluations were exceptionally positive," he says. "Our Douglas Lake campus provided access to a large, well-studied inland lake where students could field test methods, sampling, and sensor technologies before heading out on their Great Lakes day-cruises as the course progressed. In addition, this class and their instructors enriched the intellectual and social life of our field station. We hope to make this course one of our regular offerings.”