Dr. Rosanne Fortner
Director, COSEE Great Lakes
The Teacher of Teachers
By Jill Jentes
Reprinted with permission from Twine Line, (Spring 2005) the newsletter of Ohio Sea Grant.
Her numbers are beyond impressive—more than seven million dollars of research money generated over a 27-year career at Ohio State University; 57 graduate students; over 120 classes taught in two different Ohio State department appointments; 26 years of Ohio Sea Grant research funding; and the most published author of marine education research (87 articles) in the Educational Resources Information Center abstracting system.
But if you ask Dr. Rosanne Fortner what her biggest accomplishment is, she’ll say only one thing— teaching current and future teachers science and marine education. “There is nothing more exciting than helping teachers see their potential as science educators,” says Fortner. “I have had the opportunity to meet and teach some of the most talented and extraordinary teachers.”
She began her own career as an earth science teacher, but it wasn’t until her years as a marine radiologist at Oregon State that Fortner realized she wanted to specifically teach marine and ecology education. “It was amazing to see how the slightest amount of radiation affected even the most primitive marine organisms,” explains Fortner. “It was in that aquarium-based lab that I got the marine education bug.”
Owing her interdisciplinary background to Georgia Sea Grant’s Dr. Will Hon, her “inspirational icon,” Fortner completed her masters in geological oceanography and education and her doctorate in science education.
A National Marine Education Association conference led her to Ohio State in 1978. “I came here almost 30 years ago because of a Sea Grant project— the first Ohio Sea Grant project ever funded, actually,” states Fortner.
Working with Ohio State’s Dr. Victor Mayer, the project introduced science teachers to a series of curricula that taught how to incorporate such ecology topics as pollution contamination, changing water levels, and lake fish and bird species into their existing science curriculum. The first of its kind, the OEAGLS (Oceanic Education Activities for Great Lakes Schools) series helped students connect oceanic issues to a regional place they knew—the Great Lakes. “With OEAGLS, middle and high school students learned why the Great Lakes are so important and could relate their characteristics to those of the world’s oceans,” explains Fortner.
Over the next few years, OEAGLS expanded into more issue-oriented topics like PCBs, erosion, andthe politically-hot topic of climate change. “Ohio Sea Grant was ahead of the curve in 1993 in terms of introducing climate change into curricula,” says Fortner. “We were one of the first even though at the time, it was considered just too political to teach.”
In the late 1990s, the series was reformatted and updated into five distinct topic areas of ES-EAGLS (Education Activities for Great Lakes Schools), emphasizing new interactive Earth Systems applications of the tools. Teachers from around Ohio helped revise and add topics and activities.
It is teacher involvement that has been one of Ohio Sea Grant’s biggest contributions in science education, says Fortner. “Teachers know what will and will not work in their classrooms,” says Fortner. “Our role in the last 30 years at Sea Grant has been helping teachers recognize that they can develop amazing science curricula themselves.”
And that’s exactly what teachers learn in Fortner’s classes in Columbus and on Lake Erie at Stone Lab. Over the years, teachers have created board games to teach food chain concepts, conducted social surveys about environmental issues of the lakes, and developed web pages to teach aquatic invasive species.
“The content is there—it’s just a matter of finding new ways to teach the information and ultimately get kids to see the important connections in nature,” emphasizes Fortner.
Teaching those connections is key to educating kids about science, says Fortner. Students can learn about biological processes of a lake, but they also need to see how such factors as farming and shoreline development are linked to environmental issues like water pollution. “That’s why getting students to see those linkages in nature is so important,” states Fortner. Educational activities like her Decision Making Curricula for the Great Lakes not only teach students about an environmental issue, they help students identify how each stakeholder will be affected by the problem and help them find alternative actions to resolve the problem. “The test is to help kids find many alternatives, where all stakeholders can be satisfied with the outcome,” explains Fortner.
The ultimate goal for any science teacher is to get students to use the science evidence they learn in the classroom to make better decisions in life— whether that’s reviewing Consumer Reports before a car purchase, comparing candidate data before voting, or simply reading food labels before buying. “Today’s students are tomorrow’s voters and our job is to give them the science tools for their personal decision making in life,” says Fortner.
Fortner officially retires this summer, a day after completing her 21st straight summer of teaching at Stone Lab. But only officially. A new chapter of her career begins as she plans to continue teaching at Stone Lab, oversee her distance learning courses, and perhaps teach earth science in Cyprus.
In June, she was notified that the Great Lakes Sea Grant network received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Sea Grant College Program to develop a Great Lakes COSEE (Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence) program where she will serve as its Director through 2010.
Author’s note: Dr. Fortner’s Natural Resources 610 course was one of the first courses I took in the School of Natural Resources. First day of class, Dr. Fortner said (and I wrote), “It is one thing to understand the causes of climate change, pollution, and overpopulation, but it is another to effectively relay and teach others the information and possibly to get people to change because of it. That is environmental education.”
Like many of her former students, she taught us how to get people interested in environmental issues by inventing new ways to visualize an environmental issue or by breaking down complex environmental concepts into easier-to-understand activities. For those of us who had the privilege to sit in one of her classes, we thank her. She is an extraordinary science educator.
Her legacy in environmental education is the curricula she has created over her career, but possibly more important, it is the teachers she has taught.