Community college at sea: Research experiences for community college students build the STEM pipeline

by Dean Livelybrooks
Friday, March 15, 2013

"Team Bubbles": (left to right) Oregon State University graduate student Mark Williams, CCatSea participant Eric Head and intern Paige Czoski, an undergraduate at New Mexico Tech, appear to still be awake after spending all night peering at acoustic surveys of a methane vent site. courtesy of Dean Livelybrooks

The scientific crew of Leg 3 of the Cascadia Initiative sailed aboard the R/V New Horizon last summer. Erik Bengston is front row second from left, Erika Jefferson is rear row left and the author is middle row third from right. courtesy of Dean Livelybrooks

It’s 3 a.m. We’re on the starboard fantail of the R/V New Horizon in rough seas. Our job is to recover an ocean-bottom seismometer that has been lying in 160 meters of water off the west coast of Vancouver Island, where it has been recording seismic signals and long-period pressure trends for the past year. The yellow seismometer, having received a remote command via sonic signal to release its anchor and rise to the surface, floats low in dark, roiling seas. One moment it is five meters below the deck, the next it is even with the railing. Connecting lines to it so we can winch it onto the deck is problematic. Erik Bengston and Erika Jefferson, students at Portland Community College and Mt. Hood Community College, respectively, stand ready at the railing, hook lines in hand. They are experiencing what earth scientists do for a living as part of the Cascadia Initiative’s CCatSea program.

CCatSea places Oregon community college students aboard oceanographic research cruises, such as the R/V New Horizon, operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with the goal of giving these students a potentially life-changing experience to share with their peers on their home community college campuses.

With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), CCatSea grew out of a previous community college-university collaboration: the NSF-funded Undergraduate Catalytic Outreach and Research Experience (UCORE) program. During the five years of UCORE, groups of three to six students each from six Oregon community colleges spent 10 summer weeks on the University of Oregon campus, working on projects alongside faculty and graduate students in chemistry, geological sciences and physics research groups (see sidebar page 43). Participants returned to their home community college campuses and tutored, gave talks, helped lead teaching labs, and recruited other students into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career pathways.

UCORE participants were five times more likely to transfer to a four-year university than were other community college students. In addition, the three participating University of Oregon science departments saw a 10 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment on average, mostly attributable to interest from community college transfer students, including those influenced by UCORE participants on community college campuses. UCORE thus worked toward the goals of the NSF STEM Talent Enhancement Program (or STEP) to increase the number and diversity of STEM majors graduating from U.S. colleges and universities. CCatSea picks up where UCORE left off in 2012, further building upon the earlier program.

The Cascadia Initiative

CCatSea involves students in fieldwork and Cascadia-oriented research as part of the Cascadia Initiative, a multidisciplinary, multiorganizational collaborative experiment involving the acquisition of seismic and pressure data on- and offshore in the Pacific Northwest. “Cascadia” spans an ocean spreading center; the Juan de Fuca, Gorda and related oceanic plates; the subduction zone where they plunge beneath the North American Plate; as well as various coastal mountain ranges and valleys and the arc of volcanoes known as the Cascade Range. It is a perfect natural laboratory for earth scientists.

Cascadia is also the site of very large earthquakes — called megathrust events — that occur when the Juan de Fuca Plate slips below North America along a locked zone of the massive offshore fault running from Northern California to Vancouver Island. The recent deadly earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis near Sumatra (in 2004) and Japan (in 2011) were megathrust events that occurred in similar geologic settings.

Between these events, Earth’s crust deforms, produces smaller earthquakes along local faults and even slips over subducted oceanic plates below locked zones. The latter phenomenon gives rise to poorly understood, semi-periodic “slow-slip earthquakes” that occur over several days and are usually not felt. Detecting the planet’s underwater creaks and groans is best accomplished using ocean-bottom seismometers and pressure gauges. A diverse team of scientists, engineers, ship’s crew and support staff are charged with deploying, recovering and making sense of the data. Ships from four institutions, five types of instruments from three institutions, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) support this effort.

The CCatSea students also support this effort. For example, they assist with cruise tasks such as running conductivity-temperature-depth profiles at seismometer sites, helping deploy and recover instruments, and, as members of “Team Bubbles,” mapping methane seep activity using hydrophones.

In July 2011, Eric Head of Mt. Hood Community College in Portland and Michelle Richter of Umpqua Community College near Roseburg went to sea on the R/V Wecoma, operated by Oregon State University out of Newport, Ore. The task was to deploy an array of ocean-bottom seismometers, designed and built by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists and engineers whom we accompanied on the cruise.

Similar to the Scripps seismometers we recovered on the R/V New Horizon, the Lamont ocean-bottom seismometers are designed to operate in relatively shallow water (depths as shallow as 75 meters) and to resist snagging on fishing trawl nets. At the end of its planned four-year duration, which started in 2011, the Cascadia Initiative leadership team (CIET) will have overseen the deployment of a mixed array of 71 instruments intended to monitor first the northern half of Cascadia and then the southern half. Instruments deployed one summer spend the next year on the ocean floor, logging seismic signals. The following summer, these instruments are recovered along with their data; then they are refurbished and deployed again elsewhere during late summer cruises.

Spotlight on Research Cruises 

During the exciting seven-day cruise in 2012 on the New Horizon, Erik and Erika grew to appreciate the team effort needed to deploy electronic equipment underwater as the cruise progressed. They saw firsthand how everyone worked together.

Captain Ian Lawrence or Mates Rene Buck or Jack Purdy piloted the New Horizon to a site. There, marine engineer Martin Rapa — who had designed the bright yellow Teflon-coated Scripps Abalone seismometers — or engineers Paul Georgief and Ray Klein communicated with the ocean-bottom seismometers on the seafloor via acoustic signals, giving them commands such as “wake up.”

Aboard the ship, the tension rose palpably during every recovery, as we all listened closely for the chirps sent back by the instrument in response. The number of these chirps would tell us whether the instrument was still alive, if it had awakened as instructed, and if it had dropped its ballast and was ascending to the surface.

Back on the bridge, the captain or a mate, sometimes with help from an assistant boatswain, monitored the radio direction finder for signals from the device. The recovery crew, led by NOAA cruise veteran and marine tech Matt Fowler and Scripps marine tech Josh Manger, pulled on rain gear, boots and safety gear before going out on deck, using the Nautilus crane to winch the seismometer onto the deck. The data from the instrument were downloaded to computers once on board. Chief scientist Bob Dziak then made the important decisions as to where to go next.

It took several weeks for the data to be processed, including correcting for clock drift, determining the final orientation of the three components of the seismometer after deployment, and removing extraneous signals from, say, an octopus that decided the yellow Scripps Abalone made a fine shelter.

One message that Erik and Erika took back to their home community colleges is that science — marine geoscience in this instance — is an enterprise requiring many hands, pairs of eyes and skill sets. The image of the lone scientist with a white lab coat and crazy hair just doesn’t fit.

This summer, CCatSea-ers, who live on the University of Oregon campus for the summer while preparing for and finishing up after their cruises, will accompany scientists and crew on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s R/V Atlantis, equipped to use the ROV Jason to connect lines and recover Lamont ocean-bottom seismometers off Cape Mendocino, Calif.

And, like the UCORE and previous CCatSea participants before them, when the students return from their research cruises, they will produce educational and outreach videos telling stories about Cascadia science, and they will be supported at their home institutions as they help spread the word about geoscience and other STEM careers.

Catalyzing Interest in Science Careers

Through the UCORE and CCatSea programs, 134 community college students have gained valuable experience in physical science research. They have also demonstrated that community college students can make solid contributions to research.

One of the primary reasons that community college students can be such assets is their strong work ethic; they typically hold several jobs during their studies and come to programs such as UCORE and CCatSea ready to work hard. Because of this, University of Oregon scientists have been enthusiastic about developing CCatSea and UCORE projects and working with participants.

Through summer research and ensuing “STEM career catalytic outreach” (as NSF describes it) on community college campuses, UCORE and CCatSea participants have developed skills to participate in scientific discourse, promoting lively discussions of science in order to process their own experiences and to relate them to others. This bonding around science has meant that participants, upon return to their home campuses, effected changes in perception of science and engineering departments among other students and faculty on those campuses.

Based on interviews with students and faculty at UCORE participating community colleges, my colleague Clare Strawn (an Oregon-based program evaluator for the International Society for Technology in Education in Washington, D.C.) and I have tracked this effect. Beyond cementing participants' pursuit of four-year STEM degrees, community college faculty have told us, for example, that students see the UCORE and CCatSea students “greet [us professors] by name, and that really creates a positive and welcoming sense and reduces some of the ‘science is scary’ feeling.”

This speaks to an important point for the design of future STEM career outreach programs: Considerable time is spent developing programs to maximize impact on participants, but frequently much less thought is given to how to leverage their experiences to positively affect nonparticipating students, STEM faculty, and the institutions in which they study and work. By working with “critical-mass-sized” groups of students from specific institutions, including community colleges, outreach programs can do more than change the lives of participants, they can increase STEM pipeline flow upstream and down.

© 2008-2021. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the expressed written permission of the American Geosciences Institute is expressly prohibited. Click here for all copyright requests.