New Hacking 4Oceans course offers real-world experiences for students – URI News

KINGSTON, RI – April 4, 2022 – Hacking4Oceans is a new course from the University of Rhode Island that offers students the opportunity to work with industry mentors to address global issues focused on oceans and the environment. The class is a collaboration between the URI Launch Lab, the Graduate School of Oceanography and the URI College of Business.

The URI team was supported by the Common Mission Project. Steve Blank and Steve Weisman from Stanford University and the Lean Educators Summit visited URI before the coronavirus crisis to engage with faculty and students about entrepreneurship. These visits, hosted by Deedee Chatham, Director of the URI Launch Lab, inspired the introduction of the new course into the URI curriculum. This course deepens URI’s relationship with the Common Mission Project and the Lean Educators Global Summit.

Before the first student entered the classroom, URI’s H4O team – Paula Bontempi, Dean of URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography; David Smith, Associate Dean of GSO; Jaime Palter, Associate Professor of Oceanography; Seray Ergene, Assistant Professor of Economics Education; Rob Pockalny, Associate Oceanographer; and industry sponsors recruited by Chatham. The companies proposed problems for the student teams. They provided teams with access to stakeholders to interview and worked directly with teams throughout the semester.

“This type of connection between the university, industry and stakeholders is a really unique element of the class,” said Chatham. “It connects students’ learning to the world around them, builds their network and can be a stepping stone to their future careers.

“Students from all disciplines could apply for the course. They chose their own problem statement or used one we suggested,” Chatham said. Then they did their best to show how they would tackle the problem. This application process showed us how serious they were about delving deep into an issue and their propensity to succeed in this experiential class format. During the first week of the lesson, the industry sponsors came in and talked about the specific problems they brought to the lesson. The students formed teams around problems they were most interested in.”

Among the participating URI students were Monica Rao, who earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture; Felix Groetsch, Master’s student in Ocean Engineering and Meredith Haas, who is doing her Master’s in Oceanography.

Rao from Mumbai worked with others who not only came from different fields of study than her, but also from different cultures.

“I’m from India and my teammates were from China, Indonesia and America. We were the most diverse group, which helped a lot because we each looked at the problem from a different perspective. This helped us in choosing our question and conducting interviews.”

Interviews were an important part of the course and student teams were expected to conduct eight per week. It was one of the biggest challenges of the course.

“In other classes, you have your homework, sit down and do it, and you’re done,” Groetsch said. “In this case, you had interviews every week, and you had to schedule them whenever you had time. It required a lot of organizational skill. It wasn’t just “OK, I’ve had the interview and I’m done”. It was about planning the next interview and gathering insights from your last meeting. It was a real challenge to manage that without too much stress.”

Mentor companies have come from the defense, wind energy, ocean science and conservation industries. They suggested questions as a starting point, but the students gradually developed a new direction based on interviews and their research. For Haas’ group, adapting the problem statement was a major hurdle.

“There was a difference between the original question they (the company) asked us and shifting the issue to one that our team identified as the underlying problem,” Haas said. The intellectual diversity also benefited her group. “In my case, I’m a communicator, but then we had a student who was a chemist and addressed the problem from his point of view; another studied business administration, so their ideas were different. I enjoyed the process of our collective discovery.”

The Haas Group’s challenge was to develop an advancement for offshore wind power. “We wanted to know how excess energy from offshore wind can be stored or converted into another energy source. In discussions with various experts, we came to the conclusion that energy storage and/or conversion is the main challenge. All renewable forms of energy must be integrated into the grid at the desired level in order to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. While the infrastructure and market may not yet be there to support this goal, our solution focused on creating a transitional application – recycling electric vehicle batteries to provide emergency power and ancillary services that would improve coastal resilience in the event of a disaster . This would also provide a second use for EV batteries as demand increases, and incorporate storage capabilities from all renewable energy sources, including solar, as well as offshore and onshore wind.”

Rao has had similar experiences with her company: “Our first interviews were more like conversations. We had to listen to our subjects so we could figure out what we wanted. We had to go in there and explain our focus and then seek whatever advice we thought would be useful.”

Eventually, Rao and her team decided to conduct investigations using modern technology to streamline data collection and reporting and create successful case packages against illegal fishing in protected and closed fishing areas.

“We ended up forming a company called I-Sea-U that ‘would support effective enforcement in marine protected areas (MPAs) and closed fisheries areas.’ I-Sea-U offers two services: The first is an app that would digitize the collection of illegal fishing data and make it more efficient for law enforcement agencies. The second service is a cloud platform that collects data from different sources (satellites, acoustic sensors, radars, NGOs) and synthesizes them to create an output like a dashboard for the customer. Both services would be fully customizable to the needs of the customer.”

Groetsch’s team also made course adjustments. “Our initial challenge was: create a pride-driven model for marine conservation in Rhode Island. Over the course of our teaching, we’ve changed it to: Bridging the gap in ocean education in schools, as well as the communication gap between organizations, teachers, guardians, students, and science communicators.

“Our solution was to create a network of marine conservationists to encourage engagement and connection to the local ocean,” Groetsch said. “More specifically, creating a web-based platform that uses a dating app-like algorithm to connect: science communicators; educational, advocacy and conservation organizations; Teachers, guardians and students.”

The students developed new skills and made contacts with potential employers. “We received requests from many people to please send us your final product,” Rao said. “We would be really interested in seeing it. The course covered all the skills I really like: writing, leadership and communication.”

Groetsch has had similar experiences. “It was very different from other courses we took at university. Because of this real experience, I was able to take a lot with me. I was happy with the product we ended up creating and we could see that it had the potential to really be implemented.”

Haas, too, felt the work left her with potential connections. “I feel like I have the context now that if I had to go back to these people, I could. I have relationship with them. That was one of the driving forces for me, that’s great.”

Hugh Markey wrote this story.

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