Water, Water Everywhere

And many a drop to drink. A community college in Michigan builds a program around freshwater studies.
August 13, 2009
Photo: Northwestern Michigan College

The Northwestern, a research vessel, in foreground, and The State of Michigan, the Great Lake Maritime Academy's training ship, in the background.

Hans VanSumeren answers the phone from aboard ship: the Northwestern, trolling over 600 feet of water in the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay. “What we’re doing is running some hydrographic survey gear where we’re able to image the bottom, the extreme depths,” says VanSumeren, director of the Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College. The first day he was out there, researchers discovered what they believe to be the wreck of a tugboat, 405 feet below. The Lauren Castle collided with a larger ship in 1980, taking with it one crewman.

All this in the depths of the backyard of Northwestern Michigan, a two-year institution with a campus fronting the bay. Long the only community college to host a state- and federally-recognized maritime academy -- the only such academy located on freshwater -- the college is about to launch a new associate degree program in freshwater studies, with concentrations in science and technology, global freshwater policy and sustainability, and economy and society.

“Let’s use the asset that we have, this natural backdrop of water, our ships, our planes, our local partners in the Traverse City area – there’s a lot of people who do a lot of work on the water – let’s take advantage of that and let’s put it together in a degree program,” says VanSumeren.

Take the 56-foot-long, 14-foot-wide Northwestern, a ship owned by the college and used by the Great Lakes Maritime Academy for a few years before sitting idle, VanSumeren says. Now converted to a research vessel -- “We were able to get it up and running this June” – it's running on vegetable oil. “It smells like a McDonald’s fryer when we fire the engines up.” Northwestern Michigan also is home to an aviation program, and VanSumeren sees opportunities to utilize a college-owned float plane in collecting samples from far-flung lakes.

Core requirements for the associate degree in freshwater studies include a two-credit field experience and three-credit internship, as well as courses in Introduction to Freshwater Studies, Watershed Science, Meteorology and Climatology or Earth Science, Oceanography, and Introduction to GIS (geographic information system). Students in the economy and society concentration would take additional classes in business, economics, and English, students in the science and technology track would take extra classes in math and the sciences, and students in the global freshwater policy and sustainability track would complete 16 credits of Spanish.

VanSumeren says they’re working on developing articulation agreements (none are finalized yet) for transfer to Michigan universities in a variety of fields, including environmental engineering, environmental sciences, agriculture and natural resources, and even environmental literature. With just the two-year degree, students might look for a career as an environmental technician, for instance, he says.

Like a degree in marine biology or oceanography, a degree in freshwater studies could be useful when it comes to issues surrounding stewardship of great bodies of water (like the Great Lakes), VanSumeren says, but it also has direct application to issues of drinkability -- issues of water supply, water management and reclamation, and town and city planning.

Since announcing the freshwater studies program in June, he’s had about 50 phone calls from interested potential students, mostly so far from adults starting a second career (many, given the Michigan economy, coming from automobile-related industries). VanSumeren hopes that about 20 to 30 students enroll this fall, and expects the number would grow to the 50 to 80 range in the next few years.

The Freshwater Studies program is new, but the Great Lakes Maritime Academy is not, having been managed by Northwestern Michigan since 1969. When the new class of cadets arrives Aug. 16, they’ll have 135 students enrolled, says John Tanner, the maritime academy's superintendent. Graduates of the four-year program receive a bachelor’s degree in business administration from a partner university, Ferris State University, an associate degree in maritime technology from Northwestern Michigan, and their seafaring credentials, in either the navigation or engineering tracks and in fresh or saltwater.

Private shipping companies hire the majority of graduates, says Tanner. “Given the shortage, most of the graduates are gobbled up,” says Tanner.

“The reason the shortage is there is when business is good – this year’s a really bad year, especially on the Great Lakes because of the auto and steel problems that we read about, learn about, in the news daily at this point -- but there are still jobs around the nation. We have an aging workforce in maritime. In the Great Lakes, the average age of an officer is 53 so you can appreciate what that means.”


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