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Off the Script: The Center for Economic & Environmental Development

Don Farish checks in with Timothy Scott, director of the University’s Center for Economic and Environmental Development, on how the center’s projects are both solving marine-world challenges and giving RWU marine biology graduates an edge.
Photo by: Julie Brigidi, OGGI Photo

Donald Farish:

One tends to think of biology as a classic example of the liberal arts and sciences – knowledge for knowledge’s sake. But you might ask: What do you do when you graduate with a biology degree? I think that while people may not intuit this, there is a very direct relevance between what biology has to say and where the world is going. In the 21st century – the century of biology, according to E. O. Wilson – we will see an unprecedented explosion of information that will dwarf everything we have known until now about the natural world. One of the things that the Center for Economic and Environmental Development does so well in the marine world is to look at the connection between a classic research discipline and how it applies in the real world in a very relevant, meaningful way.

Tim Scott:

That dual focus is at the heart of everything we do through CEED. I just met with a group of environmentalists from Clean Water Action in Providence, who were attracted to us because we focus on both economics and environment. That was unusual when CEED started in 1997, but really that’s what environmentalists are looking for – economic tools that will promote environmental sustainability – and something that is at the core of all of our projects.

The University launched CEED when a fisherman walked in the door and said, “I’m in the crab business, I produce thousands of pounds of crab waste every day and I send it to a landfill – there has to be a better solution.” We tried to create a fertilizer that could be sold to turn waste into something profitable. There is obviously a lot of research in a project like that, and that’s where the students come in. You take a practical, applied problem that somebody in the marine world is facing and turn it into a student project with an outcome. And you create solutions that are win/win for the environment and the economics.

In everything we do – the shellfish hatchery, the marine ornamentals – there’s an economic component to it, a significant research component and the possibility of a successful outcome, whether that’s starting a company, doing shellfish restoration in the field or something else. If you pick the right projects, that model works. It might mean working one-on-one with a local company or something on a grander scale, where you can envision opening a channel for the development of marine industries in the Ocean State in a way that’s not harmful to the environment.

Farish:

It comes back to the issue that should be the hallmark of a Roger Williams education – the notion that students, irrespective of major, are getting experience via hands-on learning. Rather than doing an exercise, students are actually involved with a company or organization helping to improve a product or resolve a problem. One doesn’t necessarily think of this in a discipline like biology, but clearly this is exactly what CEED encourages.

And Roger Williams is adding value to the local economy in an explicit way, rather than just saying to the greater community that we’re producing smart people who can get jobs. Our students graduate with something in their portfolio – “I was part of this project, I know how to collaborate with other people on big, difficult issues and I take some ownership here.”

We can demonstrate that Roger Williams is an institution deeply committed to the idea of actually preparing students for a difficult job market. That is a great feature of applied learning, and for 15 years in marine biology, that’s been the case through the work of CEED.

Scott:

We’re most well known for aquaculture – our shellfish restoration and the marine ornamentals project – but our smaller projects follow the same train of thought. The cranberry bog conversion, for example. Here’s a farmer growing cranberries who has a problem. The market for cranberries crashed. What do you do, sell your land? He doesn’t want that, so why don’t we convert it into a fish farm that can then be converted back? That’s what faculty member Dale Leavitt is working on with his students and in conjunction with engineering students.

We have started working with a small start-up in Portsmouth that is trying to grow diesel fuel out of algae. That’s a solution I used to think was bogus, but I’ve come around and I think the technology is actually there to make it work. I don’t want to get involved in things that are pie in the sky or buzzwords. You can’t jump at a project if you can’t see the end – it has to be something with a practical outcome.

Farish:

Too often in the liberal arts and sciences, we want to excise anything that begins to smack of practicality. In my own field of entomology, we used to distinguish between the applied entomologists and the pure entomology people. We, the purists, would disparage the applied folks by referring to them as the “spray and count” guys.

Scott:

But now everyone wants to be a forensic entomologist!

Farish:

You’re absolutely right! And there’s a limited demand for that, of course.

Scott:

But there are an awful lot of television shows!

Farish:

I often have visions of a scene where the police discover a corpse somewhere and hundreds of unemployed entomologists show up.

Scott:

Wait, I’ve seen that beetle before!

Farish:

Yet look at the tremendous enrollment demand that is created by marine biology. There are students who say: “I want to go to Roger Williams not just because it has marine biology, but because that kind of marine biology appeals to me. I see the relevance and the connectivity.” From the standpoint of the health of the institution, to find programs that have that kind of reputation and create those streams of students is critical. We need signature programs and I think marine biology clearly for us is a signature program.

Scott:

People – especially in the Ocean State – respond to our projects because they are practical. One of the things that makes us unique is that our partners don’t just get a class of students working on a project, but a dedicated faculty member as well. In many cases – with Dale Leavitt or Roxanna Smolowitz or Andy Rhyne, for example – they are the most accomplished on the East Coast, if not the whole country, in their specialties. The students, of course, benefit from the training of these professionals. The faculty members might be able to work more quickly on their own, but our mission is to teach students. So we are melding a professional expertise – which we have in abundance – with education for our students. You need the right balance of faculty and undergraduate interest. We can teach our students and assist the local community while we’re doing it.

Farish:

Sharing our expertise on challenges facing the greater community is no small part of the equation. I have spoken to many of the oyster gardeners working with you at CEED, and they are waterfront owners who are very aware of the role they are playing in addressing a formidable problem. A great deal of economic livelihood depends on a healthy bay, yet there are challenges – industry, runoff, disease – that contribute to its decline.

When I say that our students and faculty are working on these problems, they don’t require a roadmap to understand the significance of that. This helps us establish our reputation, particularly among people who may not have children of college age. For many individuals, colleges and universities are “over there someplace,” and they think of us simply as producers of baccalaureates. When we can talk about how we are contributing otherwise, this effectively broadens our support base. The more ways we are relevant and the more people who say, “Right on, RWU!” the better.

Scott:

We look to the community to pinpoint areas where there are needs to fill. For example, the Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory is something that really didn’t exist – so we crafted a plan and implemented it with USDA funding. The shellfish restoration that Dale Leavitt leads, even the marine ornamentals… they were needs we identified.

At this point, I think we need more robust business expertise, and I’d love to see a linkage with the Gabelli School of Business. There is a need for individuals trained in marine resource management – whether its fisheries management or oil leases, there is a significant need to understand those resources and maximize their sustainable use.

I encourage all my students to take Nonprofit Management through the business school because many of them end up at Save the Bay or the New England Aquarium or elsewhere in the nonprofit world. That’s gold on a resume – something that will distinguish them from other graduates. We’re always looking for what it will take to create the most skilled graduates and to fill the needs of the community within the sphere of our ability.

Farish:

You mention a stronger connection to the Gabelli School of Business, and I think that makes great sense. Part of the administration’s responsibility is to look for places where there are gaps that effectively prevent the synergies from happening as fully as we want them to. Jerry Dauterive, dean of the business school, and I have been talking about creating an entrepreneurship program that could engage students from any major. That certainly makes sense for engineering students, for example – why not for marine biology? An entrepreneurship program is one of those bits of glue that can link diverse programs together.

Scott:

Aquaculture is as much a business as it is biology. We’re addressing that issue with students working in CEED, but if we build from our strengths in both marine biology and business, we can go much further.

Farish:

Where do you see CEED going? Ten years from now, how will CEED be set up to handle this great interest that students have in marine biology?

Scott:

I would like to see a student come to our marine biology major, work through CEED and graduate four years later with a marine biology degree and their own business. We have come close a few times – there is no reason that can’t be a realistic outcome.

Farish:

The fact remains that we face significant challenges related to the environment, and many students remain interested in getting into that world and making a difference. If all we do is teach them theory, send them out and hope for the best, I think we have done a disservice.

We need to help them connect the dots and show them how to create these economic/environmental win-wins. So hopefully, Tim, sometime in the next 10 years, exactly that student will graduate from Roger Williams.

 

This conversation served as the basis for “Off the Script” on Page 3 of the Fall 2012 issue of RWU Magazine.

Click here for more on the Center for Economic and Environmental Development at Roger Williams University.