CORVALLIS, Ore. - When Oregon State University launched the nation's first online fisheries and wildlife bachelor's degree in 2009, administrators were unsure of just what the response from students would be.
They have quickly found out.
In the past two years, skyrocketing interest in the degree has more than doubled the undergraduate student enrollment in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and now the program is about to launch a new online professional science master's degree in the spring.
These online degree-seekers aren't your typical students, according to Dan Edge, who chairs the department. They are on average nine years older than other OSU students, 40 percent already have one college degree, and 20 percent are employed by a natural resources agency.
"It is all about access," Edge said. "Many of our students are place-bound or situation-bound because of jobs and family, and simply cannot move to campus from another community and become a full-time student. And increasingly, students are becoming more interested in learning online. So we've tailored a degree program for them."
Since offering the degree, the OSU department has grown from 265 mostly on-campus students to more than 600 students enrolled in on-campus and online degree programs, with many additional students declaring fisheries and wildlife as a minor and taking classes part-time. Selina Heppell, a fisheries ecologist who coordinates the online programs for the department, said the online degree is designed to get students away from the computer and out into the field.
"We really pushed for an experiential component to this degree program," she said. "First, all of the students are required to complete an internship - usually with an agency or other organization. They also have to take a biology course with a lab through a local university or community college. And many of our courses require going out into the field to observe, sample or monitor wildlife and habitats.
"Being online really offers a different element - especially with the technological capabilities of our students," she added. "They will collect data and take photos out in the field with their cell phones, for instance, and share them with the class, or enhance their project presentations."
Because so many of the students have atypical backgrounds, the online classroom discussions are often rich, Heppell said.
"Obviously, there are some things you can't do online that you can do in a classroom," she said. "You lose a little bit of spontaneity, for example. But you get participation from a much greater percentage of the class online. It isn't just the one or two extroverts that dominate - most students take part."
The same demand that launched the undergraduate degree program has prompted OSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife to design a master's degree program for working professionals, which it hopes to launch this spring. The "Professional Science Master's in Fisheries and Wildlife Administration" will be limited to a cohort of about 10 students per year and the program will require participants to have five years of professional experience at a natural resources agency or organization.
"This really is in response to agency employees looking for even more training, especially at the management level," Edge said. He likens the professional science master's degree to an MBA for natural resources specialists.
The degree will offer training in cooperative project management, conflict resolution, policy decisions, the human dimension of resource management and communication skills, according to Heppell. OSU will work with the agencies to create a flexibility timeline for its employees who wish to participate.
"We've got a long list of people already interested in the degree, so it is an exciting experiment for us and the agencies we work with," Heppell said.
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Selina Heppell, 541-737-9039