Rising sea levels and declining marine populations have had alarm bells ringing in the science community for years, and today, news stories abound with warnings of marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and expanding low-oxygen zones. When it comes to examining the climate crisis deep below the surface, though, one Oregon State professor has decided to dive past the headlines and bring OSU Honors College students straight to the source. With his first-ever honors colloquia course, Science and Solutions for a Hot, Sour, and Breathless Ocean, Francis Chan, an associate research professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the College of Science, is trading classroom lectures for interactive experiences and turning front-page stories into “real digestible facts with a hands-on opportunity.”
Designed to stimulate thoughtful discussions within small classroom environments, colloquia classes serve as a chance for Honors College students to experience unique and niche topics in settings that often go beyond the walls of the traditional classroom. For Chan, the decision to teach a colloquia course – which was first offered in fall 2021 – opened up an opportunity for him to bring students directly to the Oregon coast for an up-close look at exactly how the information that informs society’s understanding of climate change in the sea is collected, interpreted and used. Open — like all honors colloquia — to students of all majors, Science and Solutions for a Hot, Sour, and Breathless Ocean “offers a different way from typical science classes to approach ocean science and climate science,” he says. And it’s the coastal field trip, which takes place early in the course, that is considered the class highlight by many — including Chan. “The fact that we have an amazing coast accessible is a huge asset at OSU.”
Though this is his first time teaching a colloquia course, Chan has been at OSU for over two decades, and his research involvement is extensive. In September 2021, he was appointed director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Ecosystem and Resources Studies (CIMERS), a program that focuses on four research themes: marine ecosystems; ocean acoustics; conservation, protection and restoration of marine resources; and ocean, coastal and seafloor processes. CIMERS is a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Oregon State, and together they work to explore undersea volcanoes, develop new tools to monitor whales and analyze the effects of climate change on the Pacific Ocean. The partnership, says Chan, speaks volumes of the quality of marine science at OSU.
Led by Chan, the colloquia course was also developed with the support of the Marine Studies Initiative — a teaching and research model with the mission to create “a healthy future for our ocean and the planet through transdisciplinary research and teaching that emphasizes collaboration, experiential learning, engagement with society and problem solving” — as well as an award from Wendy and Eric Schmidt to develop new curriculum on ocean change.
“I didn’t want to teach fake science.”
When the chance to teach a colloquia course arose, Chan saw it as an opportunity to turn a long-held passion into a hands-on experience for students in the Honors College. His goal? To work with students in ways that differ from typical lecture-heavy STEM classes. “We had an introduction lecture, but everything else is very conversational and hands-on,” he says. And it’s precisely this structure that allows students to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills as they simultaneously work to demystify the course topic.
Many of the students enrolled in Chan’s course come from fields outside of marine science, and he utilizes this diversity to discuss the intersection between climate science and other academic areas, while turning textbook information into real-world experiences. “I didn’t want to teach fake science,” he explains. “This isn’t about lectures, it’s about climate science instruments and putting them to use so we have real data.” By the end of the course, students know how to measure oxygen and pH measurements and calibrate instruments. “When they see things like this on the news, they can know where that information came from and can question that.”
For Chan, the course has also presented a chance to share the kind of unique, first-hand encounters he says impacted him most as a student. Beyond the complementary field trip to the coast, he has found additional ways to get students out into the field by connecting them with other labs or getting them involved in his own research. For him, as an undergraduate, “those experiences really helped things click.”
Keeping with the cross-disciplinary approach of the course, students also took an impromptu tour of a coastal oyster farm, witnessed the working waterfronts and participated in an outdoor discussion about marine reserves. One important aspect of the trip, says Chan, was the observation of a docking research vessel which had been out retrieving dissolved oxygen sensors from a marine reserve that morning. “They’re going to drop the oxygen sensors off in our lab, and we’re going to calibrate it to ensure the quality of the record,” he says. It wasn’t all educational, though. Venturing outside of the academic nature of their visit, Chan decided to enjoy the coast recreationally as well, buying oysters and fish to make a large fish taco dinner with students.
“When I was a student, those experiences really helped things click.”
Overall, Chan describes Science and Solutions for a Hot, Sour, and Breathless Ocean as a first-hand investigation into how scientists think, what they get right and the processes behind the body of climate knowledge we have today — an approach he hopes he and his colleagues can further utilize to encourage more hands-on learning. It’s these experiences, he says, that promote the confidence to be a scientist and the ability to not only grow one’s toolbox, but to ask good questions. “Nothing else stimulates that type of inquiry and process,” he says, “besides having real world problems and challenges.”
By: Megan Sherman, Student Writer and Adriana Fischer, Media and Communications Representative