Education

Cal Poly launches new marine sciences degree program

Cal Poly students have taken marine science classes in the past. But this will be the first year that students can enter a new program that will offer a marine sciences bachelor’s degree. Here, students participate in a scuba diving class.
Cal Poly students have taken marine science classes in the past. But this will be the first year that students can enter a new program that will offer a marine sciences bachelor’s degree. Here, students participate in a scuba diving class.

For years, Cal Poly has offered courses in marine biology. But this fall, the university for the first time will offer a comprehensive program that gives students the opportunity to earn a degree in the marine sciences.

The new Bachelor of Science program, which took five years of formal planning, makes Cal Poly the fourth California State University program to offer a marine science degree or a major similar to marine science. Humboldt State offers oceanography, Cal State Monterey Bay has marine science, and Long Beach State students can earn a degree in marine biology.

What students will get involved in and develop is wide open.

Dean Wendt, Cal Poly director of the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences

The Cal Poly program will feature a cross-section of courses that incorporate marine engineering, oceanography, marine chemistry, marine biology and more.

“It will be an interdisciplinary program that offers a wide range of educational opportunities and activities,” said Dean Wendt, the director of Cal Poly’s Center for Coastal Marine Sciences. “Students interested in renewable energy from the ocean, sustainable fisheries, eel grass in Morro Bay and various ecosystems will have the opportunity to develop their own projects.

“What students will get involved in and develop is wide open.”

Other potential areas of focus could include climate change, diving, ocean sampling, ocean acidification and marine mammal physiology.

Students also may help collect data on fisheries, which Cal Poly has been involved with in recent years as part of ongoing conservation efforts to build up fish populations.

It was easy to convince the CSU that we needed this program.

Nikki Adams, Cal Poly biology professor

Nikki Adams, a Cal Poly biological sciences professor who was instrumental in obtaining CSU approval of the degree program, said the university’s ownership of the half-mile-long Avila Beach Pier, its proximity to ecosystems such as the Morro Bay Estuary and its ties to organizations such as the Central Coast Aquarium make the campus the “perfect location” for a marine sciences program.

“It was easy to convince the CSU that we needed this program,” Adams said.

Many Cal Poly biology students work at the small Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach, offering educational demonstrations for schoolchildren. They also conduct public outreach at various local events, including Cal Poly Pier’s Open House.

The new program will start with about 70 students and grow to 150 to 200 students after four years of incoming classes fill out the major.

Wendt said that without any advertising of the new degree, Cal Poly received about 350 applications. The department planned on enrolling about 25 freshmen, but 47 accepted admission into the degree.

This year’s class includes three transfers and about 18 Cal Poly students changing majors to marine sciences.

Students studying marine sciences at Cal Poly will now have the opportunity to enroll in its new degree program, starting in the fall. Here, Cal Poly marine biology students conduct research in Morro Bay.

Cal Poly previously had a marine biology concentration within the biological sciences major, but often it was overlooked by prospective students. And the faculty interest in the field has grown.

“When I arrived in 2002, a handful of faculty taught marine science, and they were all in biological sciences, as part of our marine program,” Wendt said. “Now, we have faculty from three different colleges and backgrounds in fields such as physics, chemistry and biology.

“As this program has coalesced, it has become an attractive place for young, vibrant faculty to stay here and want to spend their career here.”

Jobs in marine biology are available mostly in the public sector, such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wendt said.

But Chris Kitts, the chair of Cal Poly’s biological sciences department, said if students expand their interests beyond learning about “fuzzy, cute animals,” job opportunities await in fields such as diving and marine, civil and mechanical engineering.

“To some extent, the job market is relatively unknown,” Kitts said. “If they’re expecting to find a job in marine biology, it’s a fairly limited job market. But there are all kinds of associated marine jobs out there. The job market is good for them if they’re flexible.”

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