OCG Day 2 marked the 8th first day of camp for me. Today the campers and staff participated in what we call “Concept Rotations” where groups of 4-5 moved between six stations every 40 minutes. I ran the “estuary” station focusing on these coastal ecosystems with heavy emphasis on density gradients–we even got to play with colored water and a density flow model.
The purpose of today was to serve as a ‘crash course’ of major processes and zones of our oceans. Since we’re kicking off with field trips for the next three days, today was a bit of a front-loading on all things oceanography. Therefore, the experiential learning to take place during our upcoming fields trips will be grounded in some marine ‘backstories’ and the campers will begin to integrate for themselves how major principles of oceanography fall into our real-life examples.
This is my 8th summer as a science mentor for the Oceanography Camp for Girls. That is a pretty decent number of summers to keep coming back to the same job, especially with all of the other responsibilities and work that comes along with being a graduate student. I sometimes think about why I spend so much of the summer semester, each summer for eight years, focusing all of my energy on the campers, while I could be working for myself.
Part of it is that it is still working for myself, in a way. I believe that OCG has helped me develop myself in ways that will benefit me in my career, and which are often overlooked or not taught in standard graduate school courses. Working at OCG, you have to be able to explain difficult concepts to girls of widely varying scientific and general educational backgrounds. You have to learn to make these concepts engaging.
You have to be able to keep the attention of a group of kids giving up their own summer break to show up early and spend all day learning science, working in difficult conditions in the field, rushing to finish work in the lab, and to keep them focused and directed. And these are all skills that transfer to any role that involves communicating science to others. Learning to explain these concepts to a 14 year old means learning how to adjust to your audience, and means you should be able to explain them to your peers, or to undergraduate students, or to any other audience, using the same skills you learned in the camp. Learning to engage with the campers is the same as learning to engage with any other group, and transfers directly to classroom teaching, or keeping your audience awake during a presentation or a lecture. Learning to coordinate such a varied group of girls helps you learn to coordinate other groups of students, or interns, or maybe your own undergraduate or graduate students, some day. These are all skills that are important for scientists, academic or otherwise, and which are simply not part of a standard graduate education. But another part of it is that, as a graduate student, it is really easy to get tunnel vision.
The longer you are in graduate school, the more focused you become on your own research, to the exclusion of many other things. You become an expert in a field that only a handful of your peers around you really understand, and it is easy to become overwhelmed, or fall into it so deep that you forget why you wanted to be a scientist in the first place. It’s pretty easy to forget why you wanted to be an oceanographer when you spend most of your time in your office writing, and see the ocean more often on your drive home than in your everyday research.
Working with the OCG girls is like taking a step back from all of that, and seeing everything you are working on through fresh eyes. The campers get excited about things you have taken for granted for years. You get to share your experience and knowledge with people who want to learn. For me, OCG is like a refresher each year, reminding me of why I am here, and why I love the ocean in the first place, and why I have wanted to study it since I was a kid. It’s easy to lose track of that among all the stress and work of graduate school; taking a few weeks each summer to remind yourself is definitely worth it.
This post was contributed by College of Marine Science graduate student and science mentor, Ben Ross.