June 2020 OES Beacon

Finding Connectedness through the OES

Jeff Dusek, Student Activities Chair

Jeff Dusek, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Ma.

When I learned I had the opportunity to serve as the Oceanic Engineering Society Student Activities Chair in early February, I had a great plan lined up to connect with students at OCEANS Singapore, learn more about ongoing activities throughout the summer, and begin to put ideas in place with an eye towards OCEANS Biloxi. Well, as we all know, the spring has looked a little bit different than planned! When Olin College of Engineering shifted to fully online instruction in mid-March, my spring became a scramble to support remote instruction of a project-based curriculum, combined with a seemingly endless series of Zoom calls. Probably like many of you, I struggled to adapt to online teaching, missing the spontaneous learning opportunities that happen in the classroom and laboratory when working with undergraduate students. Despite these challenges, we made it through the semester, and here I am with some time to reflect on the things that OES does extremely well when connecting with students, and areas where we can aspire to do better.

When I speak with students, faculty, and staff at Olin during this period of disruption, the number one comment I hear is that they all miss the feeling of connectedness that comes with being part of our community. I think this applies well beyond our campus, and is one of the aspects that has made this pandemic so challenging for us all. When it comes to my role as the Student Activities Chair (SAC) for the OES, I see creating opportunities for connectedness between students, as well as between students and the broader society, to be my primary role. This has always been true, but COVID-19 has shown us just how important community, shared knowledge, and cross-disciplinary cooperation truly are.

The OES has done an excellent job over the past several years of enhancing access through sponsored student memberships, increasing awareness through social media use, and providing direct monetary support for student chapters. While these efforts have created an excellent foundation for growth, I believe more can be done to create developmental opportunities for students. In particular, I would like to take a fresh look at the student programming at the OCEANS conferences, with a focus on undergraduate and secondary school students.

Existing programs at the OCEANS conferences already provide foundations for student connection, with the highlights being the Student Poster Competition (SPC) and the student mixer. I believe we can build on these successful programs to increase scaffolding intentionally designed to support students throughout the conference experience. I have a strong fondness for the SPC, having been involved as a student, a research advisor, and a judge. As SAC, I would like to create an undergraduate-focused developmental complement to the competition. This would center on coaching technical communication skills via a designated technical session or poster session, introduction to industry and academic career paths, resume support, and formal recognition in the conference program. Additionally, I would like to see increased promotion and structure for the student mixer at every conference. In Seattle the food was excellent, and an informal “speed dating” session provided great networking opportunities. I believe we can build on these successful programs at future OCEANS conferences by leveraging the density of professional talent to host panels for students focused on maritime career paths in academia, industry, and government. Combined with a career fair and resume portal, we can strengthen connections between our academic institutions and industry partners, and provide clear career and research pathways for students.

Jeff (far right) hiking with fellow SPC participants following the Oceans 2014-Taipei conference.
Spring 2020 has demonstrated the value of connectedness, in the classroom, in the lab, and through the OES.

Finally, the OCEANS conferences provide an opportunity to expand on the society’s connections to pre-college students. The exhibitor hall at OCEANS is fascinating, and we should leverage it better to draw students to the maritime fields. We can start this effort by inviting local middle and high schools to the conference hall to learn about the diverse set of opportunities in marine engineering. These visits should be complemented by a booth dedicated to providing information about all of the colleges, universities, and trade schools that provide undergraduate and graduate programs in marine-related fields. I consistently hear from students that they want to work on big, relevant problems in climate and sustainability, and the marine industry is full of ways to make real, lasting impact. Let’s leverage our conferences and meetings to recruit the next generation of ocean engineers and scientists!

While the OCEANS conferences provide a centerpiece for OES student activities, this spring has demonstrated we cannot rely on in-person opportunities to grow connectedness. With the OES spread across the world, the lessons learned from remote teaching and work should be applied to growing the connectedness of our society even while we are apart. To start, I plan to schedule a series of virtual meetups with student chapters so we can share the awesome activities currently taking place, and learn about plans for the future. I am confident that we can collaboratively imagine ways to increase the connections between student chapters, even if we are faced with continued disruption of our conference schedule. A distinct challenge facing the marine industry is how to expand and diversify the talent pool by drawing in students from non-traditional backgrounds. In Seattle, the gender disparity in the SPC was striking, and promoting and empowering women and minorities in the society and maritime industries needs to start at the student level and permeate throughout the field. While virtual interactions will likely have limitations, as a society we can view this disrupted time as an opportunity to expand our activities to stakeholders that may not have been able to attend conferences in the past, all while reducing our carbon footprint through reduced travel.

There is no doubt that the beginning of 2020 has been challenging. I feel incredibly privileged to be struggling with online teaching and planning remote undergraduate summer research opportunities while blessed with good health. While the path ahead is far from clear, no matter if we are together again in Singapore or Biloxi this fall or not, my goal as SAC is to foster connectedness within the maritime student community. I have benefitted personally and professionally from the opportunities presented to me by the OES, and I humbly look forward to working on your behalf.