Events & Media

Dec. 12, 2013

Marine Policy Students Take a (Hot) Seat at Mock Council Meeting
Putting classroom knowledge into practice, students assumed roles – and chairs – of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council members

(Ventura, Calif.) — In a novel class project, more than 25 Bren School master’s students in an Ocean and Coastal Policy & Management course got to experience what it’s like to be involved in a real-world policy making process. The students tested knowledge and skills they had acquired in the classroom in a mock meeting, during which they assumed the roles of members of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) Advisory Council (SAC).

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Resource Protection Coordinator and class instructor Sean Hastings welcomes the students and the audience to get the mock meeting started.

The meeting, arranged by CINMS Resource Protection Coordinator Sean Hastings, who is teaching the policy course at Bren, took place on Nov. 15 before the actual SAC meeting, at the Channel Islands National Park’s visitor center in Ventura. Hastings and several SAC council members were in the audience as the students responded to a real and timely proposal addressing wind-energy development in the Santa Barbara Channel, and made comments and asked questions after the students presented.

The students assumed the seat of actual SAC members and had to represent the member’s perspectives on the proposal under consideration, which was presented by second-year MESM students Lucas Feinberg and Zach Jylkka, members of a Bren Master’s Group Project that addresses wind energy in the channel. SAC members represent a range of stakeholders, from commercial fishermen and conservation groups to the Department of Defense, the local business community, the local tourism organization, the Chumash Indians, and more than a dozen others.

“I couldn’t be more impressed with the students and their level of composure and preparedness and their ability to deliver and stay on message in a public setting, which was the main intention,” Hastings said after the meeting.

“I’ve been emphasizing to the students in the course that if they pursue careers in ocean and coastal management, a big part of their work will be interacting with constituents and communities in policy forums,” he added. “This exercise tested their ability to represent a variety of interests professionally and speak in public confidently and clearly, and helped them understand how these policy forums work. It was a great professional development opportunity.”

To prepare for the interactive learning experience, students interviewed SAC members to understand their positions and those of the groups they represent. To the extent possible, Hastings and Bren PhD researcher and course teaching assistant, Lindsey Peavey, tried to have students represent council members whose views were opposite from their own.

The students clearly did their homework,” said sanctuary superintendent Chris Mobley.

“The best thing to me is that it was kind of a dress rehearsal for careers they might have one day, jobs they might actually do. This is a chance to try it out before it’s real, and if it does become real for them, they’ll have increased their chance of being successful.”

Student "council members" listen to each other as they present views of stakeholder groups.

“They were given a short time to learn the agency or special-interest point of view they were representing,” said Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau. “They were tested on how well did their homework, how much passion they bring, and how well can they think on their feet.”

 “We are delighted to see graduate students engaging in marine policy discussions and learning to communicate stakeholder views”, said Mike Murray, Deputy Superintendent for Programs at Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary prior to the event.  “Our advisory council members work hard to help the sanctuary remain a healthy, valuable marine ecosystem.  Their voices carry significant influence on a variety of important issues, and so it is great to work with the Bren School to help students learn about this community-based approach to marine conservation.”

Although the students were occupying the proverbial “hot seat,” it was a fairly cool day for them, not because the meeting wasn’t real, but because the proposal was just being brought to the attention of the SAC, and so specific action wasn’t under consideration.

“When a project is more in the conceptual stage and there are no real lines on a map, stakeholders tend to be less heated and speak in generalities about their concerns because they don’t have something they can really sink their teeth into,” said Mobley. “We had a previous council meeting on exactly this presentation, and it was a similar atmosphere because it was abstract. But if this were to evolve into a specific project in a specific place, then temperatures would rise among all players, because that’s when they would understand what’s at stake.”

Still, the students felt the pressure. “I was nervous,” said second-year MESM Sarah Sorensen, who made a motion at the end of the mock meeting, which she prepared for partially by interviewing “her” SAC member and attending a meeting of another environmental working group.

“I really enjoyed getting to sit at the table and see how it would go in real life,” she said. “It took everything we’ve been learning in class and showed us how it would be applied.”

The innovative learning exercise was the result of collaboration among Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and SAC members, California Sea Grant, and the Bren School. The application of the students’ learned skills fits perfectly with the Bren School philosophy, Hastings said, but also “parallels a major tenant of NOAA’s goal, which is to provide education and outreach on ocean and coastal policy issues. I saw the opportunity to reach both of our mandates and deepen our relationship between the sanctuary and the Bren School.”

Bren School alumna Kristi Birney (MESM 2006), marine conservation analyst at the Santa Barbara−based Environmental Defense Center, a nonprofit legal center, saw how the exercise fit into the Bren School’s emphasis on real-world application of academic knowledge.

“It was a great example of what the Bren School does best, which is teaching students practical skills, really getting them out into the community, having them talk to people who are working in the field they want to enter, learning what they do, and having to figure out how that happens – and then using that in an academic setting. To bring that around and turn it into a class exercise is what Bren is all about.

“The experience overflows with career development, because the students really had a chance to reach out to working professionals who they probably would not meet in a traditional classroom setting, especially people like commercial fishermen, a constituency that is not always visible in academia but that you may work with or for, addressing concerns they have,” Birney added. “When Sean suggested this [to the SAC], we were all supportive, because as community members, we recognize the importance of students having the experience of learning what we do.

The students who sat in for members of the Science Advisory Council for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary during a mock council meeting as part of the ESM 257 policy class at the Bren School.