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Verma Leads ODU Team Launching Marine Tech Program for Disadvantaged Youths

A specially selected group of 60 students in grades 6-12 from economically disadvantaged regions of Virginia will get to build underwater robots, design human-powered container ships, explore shipyard operations and also visit marine museums as part of a $1.3 million project that Old Dominion University faculty members have devised to give young people the skills and interests they need to pursue high-technology careers such as marine engineering.

The three-year "MarineTech" project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of a broad effort to promote the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills of America's youth. Student participants will get in-depth looks at ship construction, ship stability and ship disaster investigation as they proceed through a three-year program.

Alok Verma, the Ray Ferrari Professor of Engineering Technology and director of ODU's Lean Institute, is the principal investigator for the grant. The co-principal investigators from ODU are Sueanne McKinney and Daniel Dickerson, assistant professors of educational curriculum and instruction, and Nina Brown, professor and eminent scholar of educational leadership and counseling.

The project, which is titled "MarineTech: STEM Preparation through Marine Engineering, Science and Technology Experiences," is designed to engage students via project based learning activities and real life experiences, according to Verma. The project will also provide teachers with resources and training to improve STEM educational practices.

Oktay Baysal, dean of the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, said ODU is in a strategic location to provide a program for marine workforce development. "In Hampton Roads resides the largest naval base in the world and the third largest volume port on the United States East Coast," he said. "We host the largest concentration of ship repair and maintenance industries in the country. It is the only site in the country for aircraft carrier repair and maintenance and one of the only two sites for submarine repair and maintenance."

The dean said the Marine Tech program is just one of the ways that his college is responding to the workforce needs of the burgeoning marine sector. "To help with the region's competitiveness, we are also developing a program and an institute dedicated to marine engineering."

Students, who are being chosen now to begin the "MarineTech" program in January, will come from Southside, Central and Eastern Virginia localities that are racially diverse and economically disadvantaged. Participating students will receive $1,200 stipend. The Southside Virginia Regional Technology Consortium based in South Boston, Va., and Longwood University's Institute for Teaching through Technology and Innovative Practices (ITTIP) in Farmville, Va., along with Norfolk State University are partners in the grant. The ITTIP director, Manorama Talaiver, is one of the Marine Tech program directors, as is Deborah Chen, professor of computer science, at Norfolk State University.

Along with the student portion of the project, Marine Tech will have a teacher-training component. This will put 60 middle and high school math and science teachers from the same economically disadvantaged regions through 16 hours of summer professional-development seminars in 2009 and provide 40 hours of follow-up support in 2010-11. For participating in the project, the teachers will receive graduate credits and a stipend of $1,800.

"The project addresses the urgent need to enhance underrepresented students' interest and performance in STEM courses, while fostering skills that are important prerequisites for STEM careers, particularly in marine engineering and information technology," Verma said. "In the near term, the project will incorporate activities so that students will meet SOLs (Standards of Learning). The project also addresses the critical shortage of qualified workers to sustain the shipbuilding and repair industry and information technology industry in the United States."

Verma said several shipbuilding and ship repair companies have extended support to Marine Tech, and partners also include the Office of Naval Research and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. The Lean Institute, which Verma established at ODU in 2005, is taking a major role in the project as part of its ongoing mission to help local industries boost training and production efficiencies. Verma is known worldwide as an authority on "lean" and "agile" manufacturing practices.

For the next three years, the 60 students will participate in mini-academies on four Saturdays in the spring and four Saturdays in the fall. Each summer, the students will attend two-week academies. Training will be in information technology, shipyard and marine industry terminology, production processes, ship disaster investigation, marine science, underwater robotics and ship design. Field trips will allow the students to visit shipyards and marine museums, and summer academy activities will allow them to design and build an underwater Sea Perch robot and to compete in a contest to build a human-powered container ship.

Marine Tech got its start earlier this year when the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia awarded ODU's Lean Institute $120,000 to launch a program that would build STEM competencies of students and teachers in Hampton Roads and other Virginia regions, while also introducing them to activities and concepts of marine science and engineering.

A $600,000 NSF grant in 2007 has allowed the Batten College to offer scholarships to high-achieving marine engineering students. Dean Baysal, who is the grant's principal investigator, said the project seeks to bolster a domestic shipbuilding industry that struggles to be competitive in the global marketplace.

By ramping up its marine engineering concentration, the college "is responding to the needs of our community and our stakeholders," Baysal added. "The University is committing significant resources and we already have enthusiastic student interest."

The University's commitment in this area is reflected by its recent establishment of the Institute for Ship Maintenance, Repair and Operations (ShipMRO).

This article was posted on: December 4, 2008

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