Ocean science in Tennessee. Makes perfect sense.

While it may seem counterintuitive that a company in a landlocked state would help develop an ocean processes program, the facts are simple. There is no part of the world where the ocean doesn’t matter. From changing weather patterns to influencing food supplies, the ocean covers more than 70 percent of the globe and impacts even the most landbound areas. Understanding the ocean also requires the understanding of a range of sciences and reinforces the relevance of using them together — making it more useful as a scientific learning opportunity.

Enter the Eastman Foundation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Dobyns-Bennett High School.

At Eastman’s global headquarters, this visionary team joined forces to develop a unique capstone course in ocean processes. Too often, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education at the secondary level focuses on traditional memorization and recall teaching methods, which might help students remember facts for a test but doesn’t expose them to what scientists do. The ocean processes class takes a hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to learning. Students are exposed to real life problem solving and complete their own semester-long scientific investigative projects. They’re not just students, they’re scientists.

The ocean processes program at Dobyns-Bennett has been a huge success. Many of the class’s students also join the school’s team in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl — a nationwide competition for high school students. Competing against top performing high schools in math and science, Dobyns-Bennett students have consistently finished in the top 10 at previous regional competitions and even won the Sportsmanship Award in their first competition.

We sat down with NOSB coach and retired Eastman employee Marc Schurger, ocean processes teacher Natalie Pickett, and student and NOSB competitor Elizabeth Batts to talk project-based education, the very real importance of the ocean sciences, and what they’re looking forward to in the future.

EM: You were an Eastman employee for 41 years. How did you end up in ocean education and coaching the National Ocean Sciences Bowl team? Marc Schurger: Mentoring has always been extremely important to me. After 41 years, you learn a lot about how the company operates and how it’s changing. Sometimes, when a younger employee came along, and they were getting frustrated, someone would say, "Hey, go talk to Marc."

When I retired, I was working closing with the Eastman team members that were involved with both the ocean processes course design and the creation of the NOSB team. They knew my background and that I really enjoy working with kids and learning new things. I was thrilled when I was asked to be the coach and I said “Hey, I'm not a teacher, but I know science. I know how to look up science. I can dig up information, and I can relate to the students. I’m in.”

EM: Did you know anything about oceanography before you started preparing for the National Ocean Sciences Bowl?

MS: Not a lot. But the interesting thing about the National Ocean Sciences Bowl is it's a collection of sciences. It deals with physics. It deals with chemistry. It deals with biology. It deals with oceanography. It deals with geology. It deals with public policy. It’s a real cross-cutting competition on the sciences. So, I did some digging. And, frankly, I learned probably as much as the kids did.

EM: What was the experience like going from preparing in the school to competition?

MS: Initially, they were a bit shy. Then, all of a sudden, they got into the first competition. There was a dinner the night before and everybody was looking around, checking out the competition. They weren't really interfacing. Well, after the competition started, these kids really interfaced well — they made friends, they talked, they sat together for lunch. I think after they really went through about the first round, second round, they found out that this was actually fun. And that they knew more than they thought they did. I kept telling them that. I said, "You guys know a heck of a lot."

EM: Was it hard teaching about the ocean when you don't have easy access to it?

MS: Not really. I think if you have access to the ocean, what you're going to do is look at just a small part—like the beach. And, here you need to take it all in. You look at the beach, you look at the different zones in the ocean, you look at the different animals that live in the different zones.

EM: Do you think this style of learning is important or offers something that a standard classroom-style of learning doesn't?

MS: I think it gets these students who are above average and gives them an opportunity to learn in a different environment, to teach one another. It gives them some leadership skills. It gave them opportunities to travel, too.

EM: Are there any personal experiences with the ocean that have resonated with you?

MS: I'm a scuba diver. I really enjoy being around the ocean, looking at what's on the beach, what washes up, what's under the water. I've read books about it. I think travel would be really interesting. I've got a bucket list item to head to the Galapagos Islands. I was a Boy Scout leader for 10 years, and I've made three trips to their scuba diving camp, Sea Base, down in the Florida Keys. And so, taking kids down there, and really trying to show them what's going on under the water, and again, trying to teach them the rules about diving. I think that was critically important. And I got a kick out of it.

EM: For the past three semesters you’ve been teaching the capstone ocean processes course at Dobyns-Bennett. Can you tell us a little bit about how this course came about?

Natalie Pickett: The original design of the course really stems from the need to give our students some more authentic learning experiences at the high school level—a deeper understanding of what it means to do science rather than just study science. We began to design a curriculum, so students really had a unique opportunity to work with a world-class institution and hear from guest speakers and scientists and hopefully make some small, but meaningful contribution to the field of oceanography.

EM: Is there anything unique about the way you approached this class as compared to other science courses?

NP: Often, when we teach science at the high school level we're driven by students’ need to know facts. But that's not how the world that we're preparing them for works. Having a lot of memorized information is not a meaningful use of human brain power. So, doing science is really about looking at data, coming up with a process, and answering a question through that careful collection of data. This class was driven primarily by students and their interests. Oceanography is so broad that any idea that they have can somehow be connected back to the ocean.

EM: It sounds to me that this is a living course that adapts to the needs of the students.

NP: Absolutely. Part of why it's so important and challenging is that there's no single clear-cut answer. The course lets you think about other possible explanations, more new problems, and reflect on how science is constantly evolving.

EM: Why is it important for students to learn to question in this way?

NP: Students are curious about so many things, but they might not necessarily know the tools to reach a reasonable conclusion. Beyond science, it teaches students to be more discriminating consumers of media. There’s so much information out there and it's really important for them to question the reliability of the source and its underlying agenda.

EM: What do you hope for the future of this class and the future of science education?

NP: I hope for more project-based learning where students can learn essentials through larger questions that they're trying to answer. I can already see a lot more flexibility with mass collaboration and different online resources that we can use. I'd like to see more flexibility within the school day for students to be working on more meaningful projects and have more meaningful learning opportunities.

EM: What’s been a favorite moment as a teacher?

NP: I always love to see my former students after they've gone away. It’s great when they come back and come and see me and they say “Hey, I used this thing I learned in your class.” I just love to see that I'm a little part of their experience and that it hopefully got them along the way to be an adult and to make some contribution in whatever field they choose.

EM: What drew you to the ocean processes class and to ocean sciences in general?

Elizabeth Batts: I first started taking the class because it was research-based, and I was really interested in scientific research as a career. When I was in the class, I really enjoyed the interdisciplinary approach—that all the other science classes I had taken could be combined. You have physics and biology and chemistry, as well as the human side of policy and history.

EM: For this class you had to propose your own, original research. What was your research project focused on?

EB: In my final research project, I was looking at the coevolution of marine viruses and bacteria. I examined how resistance to the virus evolved in the bacteria and how that affected the bacteria's ability to metabolize.

EM: How did you become aware that this was something to study? EB: I was looking at a bunch of different articles and then I found a few scientists focusing marine viruses that affected phytoplankton, which was something I hadn’t heard about. And I also thought viruses were cool from what I had learned in biology. I started focusing more on how the individual phytoplankton had become resistant to viruses. It’s interesting that they had developed resistance to survive, but I wondered if that would maybe make them less suited for an environment that didn't have any viruses.

EM: Why do you think research like this and learning about the ocean is important?

EB: The ocean affects so much of your daily life, even things that you don't realize. We get a lot of resources from the ocean. It’s also hugely important in global weather and climate. I think a lot of people also don't realize to what extent the ocean plays a role in our lives.

EM: Did this project change your perspective on or help you understand more about what scientists do?

EB: The science classes I’ve taken before really focused on one thing; I took physics and learned about physics and then I took biology and learned about biology—but this class and project were interdisciplinary. You needed to really combine different disciplines of science to get the answer that you're looking for. I think working on a project like this also helped me retain the material better than some other classes.

EM: You also competed in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl. What got you interested in the competition in the first place?

EB: I was really enjoying what we did in class and I wanted to learn more. When I heard that there was going to be an ocean sciences bowl team it was an easy jump to join that.

EM: Have these experiences influenced your plans for the future at all?

EB: I'll be going to the University of Alabama in the fall. For a long time, I have been interested in physics and I had originally planned to study it. But now I’m not sure if I want to do physics research or oceanography research. I want to try to explore both while I’m in college, so I can see what a career in either of those would look like. I plan on getting my PhD and I hope to be able to figure out what to focus on.

EM: Outside of the classroom, what have been some of your favorite ocean experiences?

EB: I don’t really go to the ocean much, living in Tennessee. But my family goes every couple of years. I just enjoy walking on the shore, looking at the seashells, going in the water. I went parasailing once. And I want to learn to scuba dive. I just learned where I’m going to college they have a scuba diving club.