Monica Rao, Erfa Fachroni and Christine de Silva. With Xiaozhuo Wei, the four-member team created “I sea U,” a company that supports effective enforcement actions in Marine Protected Areas and Closed Fisheries Areas.

Hacking for a Blue Economy

A new, multi-disciplinary course is designed to launch the next generation of entrepreneurs who will take on challenges to ocean health.

By Ph.D. students, Diana Fontaine and Matt Dunn

Among the bustling Bay Campus community, there is no shortage of good ideas, innovative approaches and energy, especially when more graduate students are not taking the traditional academic career path. This has moved many on campus, including students, administrators and faculty, to investigate how this untapped potential might translate into growth for the blue economy within Rhode Island and beyond.

As part of a continuing shift at URI and the Graduate School of Oceanography to embrace industry-facing skills and applications, in fall 2021 a new interdisciplinary course was made available at both GSO and URI’s College of Business. Hacking4Oceans (H4O) is designed to empower students who are interested in turning bright ideas into actionable business plans.

H4O had multiple instructors from various disciplines across campus, including GSO professor Jaime Palter. In the inaugural class, more than a dozen students divided themselves into four different groups. Each group was then tasked with identifying a problem statement, for which they would then spend the semester determining a solution. Part of this solution involved developing a product for groups to showcase at the end of the semester. “At its core, it’s about solving problems and the care you should take in identifying the problem,” said Palter.

Formulating a solution to a problem is nothing new for GSO graduate students. Yet the motivation for a startup or business is significantly different from the motivation for a National Science Foundation grant. Instead, this course aims to bring both a creative and entrepreneurial point of view to the academic setting.

While H4O ideally helps students improve business skills like cost analysis, budgeting, and the justification for product development, it also emphasizes the disconnects that can arise between the business and academic spheres of the blue economy. With no shortage of bright, young minds at its disposal, this class will be a vital part of turning today’s good ideas into tomorrow’s small businesses.

The first step in this process is to connect industry talent with students. Meredith Haas, a student in GSO’s Master of Oceanography (M.O.) program, was excited by the challenge and uncharted territory presented by H4O. She was particularly attracted by the opportunity for students to interact with some of the brightest minds from the highly competitive tech industry. Haas explained, “Every so often [Silicon Valley tech gurus] would zoom in and they would tear our project apart, but it was amazing. It was a shock for a lot of younger students, but it was their job to give us unfiltered feedback to make our projects better. I thought we were very fortunate to have people of that caliber take their time to do this for free.”

For senior students, H4O presented more than just a unique opportunity to connect with industry sources. Oceanography Ph.D. candidate Xiaozhuo Wei really enjoyed the innovative nature of H4O. He added: “This class is very different from the past ones I’ve taken as a Ph.D. student. I’ve taken exam-based courses where there is a right or wrong answer. With Hacking4Oceans, the learning environment is instead team-centered and open-ended in terms of coming up with a solution.”

When it comes to changing academic paths for new and future graduate students, H4O may serve as a valuable introduction to careers in the private sector. For first-year GSO Ph.D. student Sarah Lang, H4O was recommended by her advisor. She wanted to apply scientific knowledge to the real world. “I thought this course aligned really well with my goals of doing science, but also to apply it to solve real-world problems,” she said.

Lang’s group project was titled “Sea Link,” and set out to better connect science communicators with teachers, students and other stakeholders. Lang appreciated the interdisciplinary structure of the course. “It was fascinating for people from four different disciplines, to put our brains together to first figure out what the problem is, and second, what the solution is,” she added. “And then, to go out into the world to understand why there is a disconnect between people and the ocean.”

For the student who already has a more business-oriented background, H4O was still plenty intriguing. Blue M.B.A. student Christine de Silva has already entered the entrepreneurial world. She co-founded a company called Juice Robotics that focuses on lightweight technology for deep-sea exploration. de Silva was drawn to H4O by her desire to make change. “We can’t make real environmental change without having a business mindset, without understanding the money flow, without understanding how to influence,” she said.

When asked about the future of this course, de Silva added, “Classes like Hacking4Oceans are extremely important because they will attract more like-minded students who will create real solutions in the Ocean State and beyond.”

Associate Marine Research Scientist Robert Pockalny, asked to sit in on H4O because he loves to see how students learn. “I was an observer in the course, essentially a super TA”, he said. “I wanted to see the peer-to-peer instruction because this is something you don’t normally get to experience in more traditional course settings.”

One of the biggest takeaways Pockalny observed in the course was that students are, “great with ideas, but it’s more of the business model they’re missing.”

When discussing how class topics coincide with his own unique role at GSO, Pockalny adds, “In my position, I have to be an entrepreneur anyway. I think this entrepreneurial mindset is key for any career path a student may choose.”

Since H4O was built around collaborations with local companies, there is an obvious future with H4O beyond the walls of GSO where more formal partnerships between the private sector and the Bay Campus can be developed. Theoretically, a company could have access to a large pool of talented ocean-focused students. Blue M.B.A. student Isaac Davidson agreed. “My hope was if you worked hard and showed your grit, maybe they could swing an internship your way,” he said.

As our environment changes, so does the evolving field of environmental science. GSO and URI are looking to the future. Melding academic research with product design and delivery will be vital to the growth of the global blue economy. “There is so much work to do in looking for solutions, and anyone who’s learning the skills we teach is primed to be part of that work,” Palter said. “After all, this work will take us through the end of the century and the ocean is going to play a central role.”

With classes like Hacking4Oceans, URI will have the opportunity to train students, not only to pursue curiosities, but to mold their ideas into sustainable business models. GSO dean Paula Bontempi agreed. “Selling our ideas, learning to pitch solutions at the intersection of science and technology, business and storytelling, are skills that will serve you well no matter the career you choose.”