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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, July 22, 2024


March 25, 2002 – The National Science Foundation is teaming up with the University of the Virgin Islands in trying to encourage minority students to enter the field of marine biology.
A nationwide program called Opportunities for Undergraduate Research in the Oceans — "OUR Oceans" for short — recently awarded UVI a $150,000 grant to help make that possible.
"The goal of this program is to increase the number of minority Virgin Islanders entering into the marine sciences at the undergraduate and graduate levels by reducing educational, economic and cultural barriers to entry and retention," Stephen Ratchford, assistant professor of marine biology, said.
About 90 percent of the students currently enrolled in UVI's marine science program are from the U.S. mainland. But Ratchford, whose career began as one of those mainland students, said it's not an isolated scenario. The National Science Foundation also wants to know why African-American, Hispanic and native American students shy away from these disciplines overall. "The National Science Foundation has no idea. Everybody's got theories, but nobody really knows," he said.
Administrators say they will use the OUR Oceans grant to identify interested students at the high school and college levels. Ratchford says he wants to carry out a first-of-its-kind survey of high school students to get an accurate read on their perceptions of marine studies.
Surveying could begin as soon as next fall. But Ratchford, the head of UVI's MacLean Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, said he has already begun looking into the matter by talking to Virgin Islands and Eastern Caribbean students enrolled in other science programs.
Lack of opportunity, fear of mishaps at sea and doubts about the financial payoff have been the most frequent replies, he said. Some students have reportedly said that since they are the first members of their families to go to college, they feel compelled to go into fields that offer recoginizable rewards, such as medicine.
Ratchford said future research might address some of the reservations expressed. "If their interest is in the money part, we could explore the marine field so we can report to the students what people are making," he said.
A lot of interest is being expressed in a four-year scholarship for high school graduates who agree to study the seas, he said, and applications are coming in.
There also is money available for expanded enrollment at UVI's Summer Science Enrichment Academy. Stipends will be offered for up to six more high school students to cover room, board and spending cash comparable to what a student would make working at a summer job. The academy gives students an opportunity for hands-on learning by working on marine biology and oceanography projects.
In addition, funds are being set aside for students to buy materials needed to conduct research projects approved under the program.

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