Pre-class surveys in high school, university and community college courses reveal that the patterns in studentsí understanding transcend educational level. Students in all groups are strongly influenced by personal experience with the ocean, informal education and the media. They are intrigued by ocean life, and concerned about human impacts (Cudaback, 2006). They are aware that ocean life is more diverse than life on land, but not clear on what that really means. They know that the ocean covers most of the earth, but have no real understanding of its depth. They are aware of the oceans role in regulating climate, but unclear on some key scientific issues in global warming (Cudaback, unpublished data).
Studentsí pre-class attitudes about ocean the science and stewardship of the ocean also follow consistent patterns. They realize that the topics in oceanography are inter-related and understandable, and have some ability to relate coursework to everyday life. Their attitudes toward the learning process itself are less strong, as they tend to believe that there is a great deal of memorization to be done, and that they cannot learn without clear guidance from their teachers (Adams et al, 2006, Libarkin, 2001, Cudaback, unpublished data).
Students are generally concerned about the well-being of the ocean, identifying it as essential to our survival, and they tend to place nature on equal moral footing with humans. However, most students believe that the earth has unlimited resources; this attitude changes quite significantly among students who have taken my classes. Students generally believe that their actions can make a difference to the ocean, and that they have a responsibility to work for the good of the ocean, but they are not confident in their understanding of the issues. Again, my students improve significantly in this area (Belden et al, 1999, Dunlap et al, 2005, Cudaback, unpublished data).
There are clear differences among the three demographics. Students in a large university score better on content than do high school and community college students. The community college students had the most mature attitudes of any group, reflecting their greater age. Marine educators scored significantly higher than any other group on both content and attitudes. Responses to individual attitude questions reveal that the most significant difference between experts and students is confidence in their understanding of issues affecting the ocean (Cudaback, unpublished data).
Student content knowledge and attitudes are not correlated a priori, but changes in content knowledge in attitudes are significantly correlated. This suggests that teaching students about the science and stewardship of the ocean can lead to significant improvement in student attitudes (Cudaback, unpublished data). I believe that integrating issues and human impacts fully into oceanography courses will not only encourage better stewardship, but also improve studentsí understanding of the scientific content and attitudes about the relevance of science in their lives. The data discussed here are the first step in testing that hypothesis.