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12-09-2021

A Need for Interdisciplinary Education in Ocean Fields

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO

United Nations / Ocean Science & Technology / Ocean Policy & Sustainable Development / Business & Industry / Donors & Foundations

By Amir R. Nejad and Michaela Ibrion, Department of Marine Technology/ Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway

Ocean, or “life below water”, is one of the seventeen sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. As truly highlighted by the Ocean Panel, “a healthy ocean is critical to meeting the sustainable development goals,” which illustrates the importance of the ocean in connection with other goals.

The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) offers a framework to further support and develop scientific knowledge, education, research, and innovative technologies to ensure a balance between the sustainable management of ocean resources, the development of a blue economy, and meeting societal needs.

In the last few decades, ocean industries have shifted from traditional transport and fishing to an interdisciplinary industry covering energy production (offshore oil and gas, offshorewind, wave and tidal, floating solar), food production (aquaculture), mining (deep-sea mining) and transport in harsher environmental conditions, such as in Arctic and Antarctic regions, pushing borders deeper and farther offshore. For instance, the offshore wind industry has quickly developed, introducing fascinating technologies like heavy multi-megawatt wind turbines that can float in the middle of the ocean. Floating wind turbines, floating solar panels, digitalization, hybrid power propulsion, autonomous ships, deep-sea mining, and emission reduction are just a few examples of research activities in the arena of today’s ocean science, particularly in engineering fields.

A sustainable ocean calls for the development of adaptive and innovative educational methods addressing the interdisciplinary aspects linked with ocean-based industries. We must enhance ocean education in order to integrate new societal needs, develop the blue economy and ocean-based industries, and protect the ocean. Education for ocean-related fields must be a transformative and participatory process that can benefit ocean ecosystems, a sustainable blue economy, and global communities. Ocean experts and engineers need to have a broader perspective and knowledge to tackle interdisciplinary ocean challenges. Therefore existing educational programs need to be adapted.

An interesting example is the offshore wind industry which requires an understanding of several areas of engineering, including mechanical, structural, electrical, material,geotechnics, hydrodynamics, and even aerodynamics. But knowledge of historical environmental conditions, impact on fish and sea living creatures, birds passing routes, potential social effects on local communities, and other sea users like fishers or shiproutes are also important factors in developing an offshore wind farm.

In classical educational programs today, the problem is that the focus is mainly on own field, producing graduates who often lack a holistic view and overview of the whole picture. In other words, while the ocean industries have become more and more broad and interdisciplinary, existing educational programs are mostly not designed to develop interdisciplinary skills. To make it worse, the industrial collaborations between different disciplines in ocean industries are also very limited. One recent example is the incident of the 400-meter-long Ever Given container ship blocking the Suez Channel in March 2021, affecting the world’s trade. Another is the blackout of Viking Sky cruise ship in Hustadvika off the coast of Norway in stormy weather in March 2019 with 1373 people on board. Both ships are enormous, newly built vessels illustrating the new industrial trend towards bigger and bigger ships. Is such growth in this ship development proportional to other fields, for instance, ocean infrastructures?

The earlier examples demonstrate such growth is not conducted sustainably. Therefore, having future engineers or ocean experts with interdisciplinary skills should encourage more sustainable and balanced development, or at least raise awareness of the necessity of such actions. The question which may arise here is how to include interdisciplinary skills in existing educational programs, especially at the university level, while maintaining the quality for each discipline. This is, in fact, a challenge with no easy or clear solutions. First, students must master the fundamentals related to each field of study; adding too broad knowledge will reduce the quality.

A balance is needed between the fundamental of each discipline and the knowledge to be learned from other fields. One approach for introducing interdisciplinary topics to ocean education is to utilize applied research results as part of the teaching materials. For instance, the results from a real case study can be used in the lecture or as a course project to illustrate a broader perspective. Interdisciplinary projects between different disciplines at university and encouraging students to attend courses from other fields can be a good start. For example, engineering students can attend environmental or social science courses or provide basic engineering knowledge for lawyers or politicians. It is even better to start interdisciplinary ocean education much sooner in early school years. The aim should be to illustrate the bigger picture. Each job in each ocean discipline is only a small part of a bigger puzzle; it impacts others and is vice versa being impacted by others.

After all, when it comes to the ocean, all science disciplines are connected.

This article is part of an online series dedicated to the UN Ocean Decade. One story will be published each week that is related to initiatives, new knowledge, partnerships, or innovative solutions that are relevant to the following seven Ocean Decade outcomes. Access the special digital issue dedicated to the Ocean Decade here.


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