Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Every year we take an outstanding group of USC undergraduates through full American Academy of Underwater Sciences Scientific Diver training and then travel with them to the Micronesian Islands of Guam and Palau for investigations of marine and coastal ecosystems. On the American Territory of Guam we look at the effects of overfishing, terrestrial runoff, and the ongoing military build up on the stressed but still very impressive coral reefs in and near Apra Harbor. We also encounter endangered species, the invasive snakes that have contributed greatly to loss of terrestrial biodiversity, and a variety of other environmental and cultural issues. We study a watershed using the full ridge to reef approach.
In the Republic of Palau, an independent nation in compact free association with the United States, we carry out a long-term reef-monitoring project in a highly restricted marine protected area for the State of Koror in support of the UNESCO Rock Islands Southern Lagoon World Heritage site. The human population of Guam per unit area of reef vastly exceeds the same metric for Palau. Guam’s economy is driven in part by the substantial and growing US military presence as well as wedding tourism from Japan. Palau’s economy is centered on ecotourism, but they sometimes face threats from Chinese fishing boats poaching in protected waters. Not surprisingly, we encounter 100 sharks on Palau for every one on Guam.
Last Friday the Spring semester at USC ended with Commencement, and this morning my faculty colleagues Dave Ginsburg and Kristen Weiss, along with Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith and volunteer dive instructor Tom Carr are taking 26 Scientific Divers in Training to Catalina Island for an additional week of in-ocean transects and a lot of lecture material. Along with them are recent (very recent) graduates Nate Kinsey and Michelle Feldberg, who were on the expedition in 2012 and 2011, respectively. They are traveling to Micronesia with us at their own expense as volunteer teaching assistants. Tomorrow I fly to Beijing and on to Seoul for the USC Global Conference (link), where I’ll be on a panel with colleagues from the USC Dornsife School of International Relations and the recent Vice Foreign Minister of Korea. Our panel is called “Risks and Rewards: Competition, Resources, the Environment and the Political Future of the Western Pacific“, and that is in a nutshell what our Guam and Palau Expedition is about, except the expedition has a lot more scuba diving. Next Monday I’ll reunite with the other 32 science divers a few hours after they arrive in Guam.
A lot has happened since the wrap-up post from last year’s blog. The popularity of our Guam and Palau program, which requires registration in both a 2-unit and a 4-unit course, has skyrocketed. Last fall we had over 100 applications for what ended up being 26 slots. The average GPA in this year’s class is about 3.7, and they are a very accomplished group of individuals. You will meet them in the posts to follow; I could praise any of them, I’ll pick four as representative. Richelle Tanner is a double major — Environmental Studies BS, and Jazz Performance (piano). She commonly takes 44 or more units per academic year, has a 3.97 grade point average, composes, and seems to absorb chemistry, physics and biology with little formal study. Meghan Heneghan is a Trustee Scholar (full tuition) and a double major in International Relations and Environmental Studies. She is a wilderness first responder and spent part of last summer in the Arctic in a course taught by my friends Rob English and Steve Lamy. Meghan crossed the finish line at the Boston marathon before the bombing. Michael Young is a freshman Environmental Studies major, loves polar bears, and has traveled the world — even to Antarctica (where there are no polar bears). As a project in high school he created a social network tool to encourage sustainable behaviors. That project grew into MyActions.org. I’m on his advisory board.
All of the students this year are outstanding in the water, and Meghan Herring (not to be confused with Heneghan) is a case in point. A biology major, Meghan came in to our course already a professional NAUI Dive Master. She did most of her dive education in quarries in her native Montana in very cold water and near-zero visibility. She has been a big help with the great majority of the students who had never dived prior to the course. This year we have 23 women and 3 men. The Guam and Palau expedition has always drawn more women than men, twice or three times as many being common. Young women and young men have different learning styles, and this might be more so for STEM. All I can say is that we are teaching a lot of STEM content to young women who would more probably be seen in a social science course than a traditional chemistry lecture. We think women will continue to be strongly represented in the program, and this year we are training a female faculty member (Lecturer Kristen Weiss) to step in next year and hopefully take my place.
Another thing that happened this year was it became easier to engage the students in content relating to resource competition, conflict and the environment in the western Pacific — and especially Guam. Today’s U.S. college students never knew the cold war, and certainly never learned to duck and cover when the teacher shouted “flash.” For the first time in their lives they heard the leader of an adversarial nuclear power threaten to bury us like a present day Khrushchev. And Guam was near the top of the hit list. No one in the class was disappointed to learn that a previously cancelled missile defense system was being deployed on Guam, initially on a temporary basis.
In addition to the crisis on the Korean peninsula, which has calmed down in recent weeks, tensions continue to build on Scarborough Shoal, where paramilitary Chinese maritime forces have excluded Philippine fishermen from traditional waters in defiance of a withdrawal brokered by the US. Only a few months ago hostility was escalating between Japan and China (and even Taiwan) over the variously named Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai/Pinnacle Islands in the South China Sea. These have been controlled by Japan in recent history, but the competing territorial claims are profoundly convoluted, and no solution will please any nation that does not end up with undisputed control. The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are the cause of an analogous territorial dispute, this time positioning China against Vietnam.
These contests are all drivers for the US strategic pivot to Asia with its accompanying military build up on Guam, and with the exception of North Korea, they all involve competitions for fisheries and possible offshore natural gas fields. China needs huge amounts of protein from the oceans, and their near-shore ocean fisheries are in collapse. China needs huge amounts of energy, from every source, and the closer to China the better. The lecture content and in-ocean context of our Guam and Palau program has never seemed so important and urgent. Our students will blog about some of these resource conflicts and their potential impacts in the western Pacific and East Asia, and I will report back from Korea.
The three essential educational approaches of the Guam and Palau Program are: teaching with technology, experiential learning in the field, and reflective writing. This blog is strongly connected to the third component, and we thank Bora for having the opportunity to share it with the Scientific American community for a third year. Teaching with technology seems obvious in that we are loading the students up with dive computers, sensors, gas analyzers and whatnot and dropping them off of boats into the ocean to make measurements. And that is a big part of what we mean by teaching with technology, but there is another part. With funding from the USC Center for Scholarly Technology we are starting to gear up with iPads, Go-Pro video cameras, and other digital devices so that the students can acquire, exchange, manage and interpret a substantial amount of data in the field. We are not quite ready to take iPads underwater, but we do have robust cases that should allow us to take them on the boats. The ultimate goals include archives of interpreted video transects connected to searchable databases of fish and invertebrate counts, with date, time and geocoding. Dave and I received some recognition for this work in progress. On May 6 we shared the Provost’s Teaching with Technology Prize, and immediately spent all of the prize money on underwater camera equipment.
Experiential learning in the field is the signature element of the USC Environmental Studies Program, and we use the USC Dornsife Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island to the maximum extent we can. This year the students each spent two to three weekends training on Catalina, and they are there all this week before flying out to Guam on Sunday. Our goal for 2014 is to have the students spend all of Spring Semester on Catalina learning science diving and applying it in coursework on Marine and Coastal Policy, Conservation Biology, and Sustainable Fisheries Management. Then, after four months of extensive education and training, we would send them on to Guam and Palau (and maybe Yap or Saipan) for up to three weeks in Micronesia. We call this Catalina Sustainability Semester, and we even printed up a trifold brochure.
Dave Ginsburg will be checking in soon to report on activities on Catalina this week. I have some packing to do.
Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.