High School Students Earn University of Washington Credit in Oceanography

by Richard Strickland, University of Washington School of Oceanography and Timothy Stetter, University of Washington Professional and Continuing Education

UWoceanography2This fall, as flocks of new freshmen swarm to college campuses, many of them are bringing along college credits that they earned while they were still in high school. Some of them earned the credits by taking Advanced Placement exams, and others took detours from their home schools to attend classes on college campuses.

Some students, however, earned college credits by taking classes from their own teachers in their own high schools. The University of Washington (UW) offers a program in which leading teachers, guided by UW faculty mentors, teach at a college level and students can earn UW credit.

UW Educational Outreach has operated the UW in the High School (UWHS) program http://www.extension.washington.edu/uwhs/ for 29 years, offering courses in science, math, English, computing, and world languages. UWHS is fully accredited by the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. Among the scientific subjects taught, Astronomy and Earth Sciences (Geology) have both been offered for five years. The 2009–2010 school year featured the pilot of a new science course, Oceanography. http://www.ocean.washington.edu/academics/k-12resources.html. Five high schools in Washington participated, with more than 60 students earning UW credit. Based on last year’s positive results, the program is expanding this year to include as many as ten schools.

The Puget Sound area is particularly well suited for high schools to teach oceanography. The roughly 2,500 miles of shoreline, and the numerous informal marine educational institutions, provide many opportunities for getting out of the classroom and onto the shore and the water. Three of the current UWHS oceanography programs are located on islands in Puget Sound, and another has a waterfront laboratory.

UWoceanography1The first schools for the oceanography program were selected from among those that either had an active program in oceanography already or had an outstanding teacher who was ready to take on the challenge. Three of the schools were contestants in “Orca Bowl,” the Washington State division of the national Ocean Sciences Bowl conducted by NOAA and the National Sea Grant Program http://www.wsg.washington.edu/education/events/orca.html. Two of the selected teachers had master’s degrees in marine science and all had advanced science or education degrees, including one Ph.D. One of the teachers had won a 2008 “Golden Apple” Award, an honor conferred annually by KCTS-9 public television on outstanding teachers in the State of Washington http://kcts9.org/video/megan-vogel.

One of the pilot schools benefitted from another educational program at the UW that operates in parallel to UWHS. The OACIS (Ocean and Coastal Interdisciplinary Science) GK-12 program http://depts.washington.edu/oacis/ uses National Science Foundation funding to place science graduate students in high-school classrooms. The graduate fellows contribute technical knowledge to assist the teachers with instruction and, in turn, they learn communication and teaching skills. A GK-12 fellow worked with one of the five UWHS pilot schools in oceanography last year, and fellows are working in three of the schools during the 2010–2011 school year.

One of the pilot schools also participates in “Citizen Science,” http://www.seattleaquarium.org/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=268, an educational outreach program operated by the Seattle Aquarium. This program trains students to monitor several key shorelines using a standardized methodology. The students learn about both marine processes and scientific method, while the results build a consistent database that has both educational benefit and research uses. Citizen Science cooperates with a larger Puget-Sound-wide program operated by UW’s Washington Sea Grant Program http://wsg.washington.edu/citizenscience/index.html.

Both students and teachers participating in the UWHS program have noted its advantages. Students and teachers alike in the UWHS program have UW privileges, including access to libraries and online materials. Schools keep the students (and the funding they bring) on campus rather than having them depart to take classes on a college campus. Students learn from their own teachers, among their friends, rather than from an unfamiliar professor in an unfamiliar environment. Students gain advanced study skills and familiarity with the level of achievement that will be expected of them in college. Perhaps most important, the credit is earned for a body of work—including class participation and homework as well as tests—rather than for performance on a single day’s standardized examination. Teachers receive professional development, access to UW resources, clock-hours, and recognition as an Extension Lecturer. The UW also benefits from the program, which identifies and grooms highly qualified and motivated students for potential recruitment to the university. Surveys consistently show that more than 20% of students who take a UWHS course matriculate to the UW after high school graduation.

The teachers in the UWHS program operate under the supervision of a faculty mentor in the UW subject department. They must meet qualifications that are determined by the faculty mentor. The mentor provides a framework for the curriculum and pedagogical approach of the class, and leads an annual workshop at which the teachers are familiarized with the material and approach the mentor wishes them to follow. The mentor also is available to answers questions and offer guidance throughout the course. The mentor also is assigned to visit each class at least once during the school year. The visit can help to exercise quality control over the instruction, but mainly provides a face-to-face connection for the students with the mentor.

In all the programs, students who were taking the subject for UW credit worked in the same classroom with students who weren’t taking the course for credit. The teacher and the UW faculty mentor agreed on a formula in each class to determine what level of performance would distinguish between UW credit and no credit. In same cases, additional work was required for credit. In others, the course grade was the determining factor. In all cases, being able to accommodate both credit and non-credit helped fit the UWHS class into the existing curriculum and school schedule.

trevor - Oceanography FlowersThe five quarter-credits earned through the program can be applied toward the general science requirement and “Natural World” requirement for graduation—and toward the requirements for a major in oceanography—at UW. Other colleges have individual policies about accepting transfer credits from UW, and students need to determine whether and how these credits will apply. The students pay tuition ($299 for most courses during 2010–2011), which covers the program’s administrative expenses and nominal compensation for both the high school teacher and the faculty mentor.

The course of study for UWHS programs varies with the subject. Some standardized subjects such as math are taught in a strictly defined fashion, with prescribed assignments and tests. However, oceanography is a very broad and interdisciplinary subject, and its subject is a real and tangible part of the environment rather than an abstract set of principles. Different teachers, both at UW and elsewhere, can teach oceanography very differently. Different high schools have different resources, and different teachers have different backgrounds and strengths. For example, four of the five schools that participated in the pilot year of oceanography were located within five miles of salt water (in fact, closer to salt water than the UW is!) and could easily include field trips in their curriculum.

The UWHS oceanography program is kept flexible to accommodate this diversity. The courses are intended to be analogous to Oceanography 101, a freshman-level course intended for non-science majors. The faculty mentor provided copies of supporting materials including lectures, classroom and laboratory exercises, homework assignments, and exams from a range of differently structured UW Oceanography 101 classes. These materials provided both a backbone of course materials that teachers could use in the classroom and examples of the scope and level of technical detail that they should use in creating any of their own original materials. Some teachers chose to follow these materials very closely, at least for the first year while they were getting comfortable with the subject. Other teachers who had existing oceanography courses or more extensive training in the field forged their own lessons using the UWHS materials as guidelines. The course, taught in one academic quarter at UW, could be taught either in a single semester or over an entire school year, depending on the needs of the school or teacher.

In evaluations from the pilot year, students expressed their views that the UWHS oceanography program offered them challenging rigor, but at the same time great satisfaction with the interesting subject matter and the sense of accomplishment. More than 92% of the students who registered for UW credit passed the course and earned the credit. In an age when there is increasing concern over both science literacy and the state of the oceans, the UWHS oceanography program is bucking the tide to jump-start students in their expertise on both subjects.



  1. Mike Town: Passionate about environmental education : - October 5, 2011

    […] At the University of Washington they have a dual credited UW course in climate change which is now being developed to offer in high schools in Washington State.  In this course students get UW and high school credit.  LuAnne Thompson, Tim Stetter, and Miriam Bertram at UW are working to design the course. [See previous Clearing article here—Ed.] […]

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