A surge in the number, size, and diversity of public aquarium, aquaculture, and ornamental fish industries has persisted since the early part of the last decade. This rapid expansion has accelerated the pace of technological and methodological advancements in the care of captive aquatic plants and animals; as such it has promoted a commensurate increase in the value of practical knowledge within each growing and emerging field of aquarium science. Today, even individuals with impressive academic backgrounds in the biological sciences frequently require intensive on-the-job training for entry-level aquarist positions. Demand for these specialized job skills is increasingly prompting some in the industry (particularly those charged with procuring competent personnel) to ask, what specific experience is requisite of the title “advanced aquarist,” and how is this experience most clearly demonstrated to a prospective employer?
Development of the Oregon Coast Community College Aquarium Science Program
Recognizing a growing demand for trained aquarium industry workers, the Oregon Coast Community College (OCCC) conducted a nationwide survey of public aquariums, aquaculture facilities, and ornamental fish businesses in 2000 to ascertain the need for formal instruction in aquatic animal husbandry. Over half of the respondents complained that newly hired staff customarily lacked appropriate skills; a considerable majority of respondents (80%) indicated that graduates of the proposed program would be qualified for a position in their facility. Having justified a need, a planning grant of $723,000 was awarded through the National Science Foundation in 2001. Working closely with industry leaders, the college subsequently developed the Aquarium Science Program (ASP). Arrangements were made to allow for the use of resources at the Oregon State University-affiliated Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) in Newport.
Offering an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree, OCCC welcomed its first cohort of Aquarium Science students in the Fall of 2003. A substantial number of those who enrolled that year– and then the next– included postgraduate students seeking to build practical workplace experience. ASP administrators responded by obtaining state approval for a Certificate of Completion option for those entering the program with a bachelor’s degree in a life science area. While a handful of other institutions (e.g. Saddleback College, Hillsborough Community College, and Gadsden State Community College) have incorporated aquarium science courses into their curriculum, ASP remains the only such program that offers a two-year AAS degree and 1-year certificate.
Enrollment in the program has steadily increased with its reputation. The number of applicants for the coming school year has exceeded the number of available spots; shared space at HMSC has grown tight. To accommodate a growing student body, OCCC has secured funds (from a 2004 local voter-approved $23,500,000 bond levy) for the construction of a main campus building dedicated to ASP. In the near future, OCCC aquarium science students will enjoy a modern 5,000-6,000-square foot facility equipped with an animal holding area, a water quality/animal health laboratory, a food preparation room, a propagation/food (algae, rotifers, brine shrimp, etc.) culture area, as well as a workshop/storage space.
The Aquarium Science Program Curriculum
ASP offers comprehensive professional training designed to prepare students for a career in the field of captive aquatic animal husbandry. Its intensive, fast-paced curriculum builds a foundation of applied knowledge and technical expertise that may take up to a decade to acquire through conventional means. Students are instructed on the biology and husbandry of aquarium livestock (e.g. principles of propagation, health management, etc.) as well as the design, fabrication, and maintenance of aquarium systems (principles of exhibit development, plumbing and electrical installation, etc.). The ASP curriculum takes a generalist approach, touching upon topics in all areas of aquatic animal care. In addition to formal academic classes in a traditional lecture format, students are afforded practical experience in a functional aquarium facility. To further round out its students, the program includes training in useful secondary skills such as boat handling, carpentry and SCUBA
With its focus on husbandry and technology, ASP does not substitute for a traditional marine biology program, nor does it prepare students for careers in veterinary medicine. ASP does not offer extensive instruction in animal training, and so does not adequately prepare students for professional work with marine mammals.
Oftentimes described by both students and staff as a “hands-on” educational experience, ASP places an emphasis on operative learning by way of:
- the inclusion of strong lab components in most classes,
- a wide array of practicum experiences that take place at the nearby Oregon Coast Aquarium and other associated facilities,
- interactive field trip activities
- the fulfillment of an 11-week internship.
In its aim to produce flexible, job-ready aquarists, lab exercises are designed to familiarize students with basic occupational skills such as equipment operation and animal handling. Practicum students are assigned to an aquarist with whom he or she will work in their area of interest, getting a feel not only for the unique responsibilities and challenges but for the particular lifestyle it presents. Field excursions directly expose students to a variety of real work environments, and have included visits to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Salmon River Hatchery, the Oregon Zoo, the Zebrafish International Resource Center, a charter boat operator, and a tank fabrication company. Students are encouraged to develop more specialized skills in their area of interest during their internship, which may range from work in the retail aquarium trade to laboratory research assistance.
Students earn the AAS degree in Aquarium Science by completing the required 90 credit hours with a “C” or higher in all courses, in addition to completing 132 hours of practicum and 400 hours of field internship. Students earn the Aquarium Science Certificate of Completion by completing the required 51 credit hours with a “C” or higher in all courses, in addition to completing 132 hours of practicum and 400 hours of field internship. Graduates of the program are expected to be capable of:
- analyzing, maintaining, and repairing advanced aquarium life support systems,
- properly using standard water quality testing devices,
- using standard industry practice to evaluate and maintain the health of aquarium livestock,
- planning, constructing, and managing outstanding aquarium facilities as team members, and
- effectively communicating concepts and research findings to industry professionals, the scientific community, and the general public.
Employment opportunities for graduates include work in aquaculture enterprises, research facilities, fish hatcheries, aquarium science publication, government natural resource agencies, public zoos and aquariums, and retailing, wholesaling, or self-employment in the ornamental fish industry.
The following PDF details the program: http://www.chemek.cc.or.us/catalog/programs/aquariumscience.pdf
Those seeking enrollment in ASP must begin by contacting an OCCC academic advisor and taking the ASSET test. An OCCC and an ASP application form must then be obtained and completed. Additional required materials include a current resume, transcripts (those applying for enrollment in the Certificate of Completion program must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a life science), letters of recommendation, and applicant evaluation forms. Applicants are interviewed by the ASP interview panel. For those who apply early in the admission period, status notification is sent in mid-January; for all others, notification is sent shortly following the interview. Admitted ASP students begin their coursework in the fall term (late September to early October).
Additional information about the Oregon Community College Aquarium Science Program can be obtained by calling (541) 265-2283, contacting director Bruce Koike by email at [email protected], or visiting the program website at http://www.occc.cc.or.us/aquarium. Post can be addressed to Aquarium Science Program, Oregon Coast Community College, 332 SW Coast Hwy Newport, OR 97365.
- Koike, Bruce. Personal telephone interview. July 20, 2009.
- Koike, Bruce. Personal sit-down interview. July 21, 2009.