FEC Academician Prof. Dr. Shu Gao has recently published a comprehensive book titled Oceans and Human Society. This book is a culmination of 12 years of his dedicated research and teaching, aiming to bridge the gap between ocean science and societal understanding.
Oceans and Human Society is an interdisciplinary undergraduate course at Nanjing University (China) and it uses a unique modular structure to condense comprehensive human knowledge into a condensed timeframe. The work traces the historical development of marine science, integrating principles from various fields into ocean exploration. Shu highlights the interdisciplinary nature of Earth science, covering geology, geophysics, geochemistry, geography, oceanography, atmospheric sciences, and more.
Moving beyond marine science, the book discusses engineering, historical, economic, and social perspectives on the ocean. Shu addresses marine economics, social development, climate change, maritime land rights, and maritime law, emphasizing the need to integrate marine science into these broader fields for effective solutions. Recognizing diverse student backgrounds, Shu suggests a “thematic” teaching model to outline marine knowledge systems, balancing structural knowledge and analytical depth.
As the book reflects on 12 years, Shu envisions continued exploration, emphasizing the dynamic nature of scientific inquiry and the importance of questioning, debating, and discussing knowledge.
Shu Gao was educated in Nanjing University and the University of Southampton, UK, for M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees, respectively. His research career includes the positions at the Second Institute of Oceanography (SOA), the Southampton Oceanography Centre (UK), the Institute of Oceanology (Chinese Academy of Sciences), Nanjing University, and East China Normal University. His research interests include sediment transport and accumulation in shallow seas, evolution of coastal and shelf geomorphology, land-ocean interaction in the coastal zone, formation and evolution of Holocene sedimentary systems, water and sediment exchange in estuarine and coastal embayment, shallow marine material cycling, marine resources development and environmental management, and coastal engineering and environmental impact assessment. Since 1985 he has completed more than 400 publications in academic journal and book contributions, in the fields of marine sedimentary geology and environmental dynamics. He works as a professor in marine geology at Nanjing University and a visiting professor of the East China Normal University, and is currently an Editor-in-Chief of Marine Geology (Elsevier) and the founding Editor-in-Chief of Anthropocene Coasts (East China Normal University and Springer).
Oceans and Human Society belongs to an undergraduate “General Education Course” system offered by Nanjing University, designed to span 20 to 30 class hours. The interdisciplinary courses are designed to cultivate students’ comprehensive mastery of human knowledge. In such courses, the entire knowledge system is divided into a series of different modules, each encompassing multiple courses that interweave the core concepts of the module throughout. By taking one or two courses in each module, students can achieve a multiplier effect and complete the learning of all modules in a condensed timeframe.
If we consider Earth science, including disciplines such as geology, geophysics, geochemistry, geography, oceanography, atmospheric sciences, and more. as a module, then the commonalities among its various courses are as follows: (1) extensive spans of time and spatial scales, with different controlling mechanisms at different scales; (2) multiple influencing factors in the Earth system, with phenomena exhibiting multiple interpretations; and (3) the unique value of field or on-site observations. As part of the Earth system module, this course utilizes marine science and its applications as a means to demonstrate the significance of spatial-temporal scales, system characteristics, and the importance of on-site work.
Marine science itself constitutes a complex knowledge system. Therefore, this course strives to encapsulate essential points and theoretical frameworks within marine science. Historically, principles from physics, chemistry, biology, and geology were transposed into ocean exploration, resulting in sub-disciplines such as physical oceanography, marine chemistry, marine biology and marine geology. These later merged into modern marine science, characterized by the evolution of Earth systems, global climate change, the evolution of life systems, and the methodology of data analysis.
Beyond marine science, one can also view the ocean from engineering, historical, economic, and social perspectives, involving issues such as marine economics and social development, resource environment and ecology, global climate change mitigation, maritime land and rights, and maritime law. Only by integrating marine science into these fields can effective solutions be discerned.
Given that students in interdisciplinary courses come from various departments with diverse foundational knowledge, it’s challenging to predetermine a specific starting point. This is significantly different from specialized courses. However, general education courses should not be confused with generic knowledge dissemination or “nutrient credit” courses. The challenge lies in determining how to achieve the teaching objectives of Oceans and Human Society. One feasible approach is to adopt a “thematic ” teaching model, outlining the macrostructure of marine knowledge system, selecting key topics for emphasis, and striking a balance between structural knowledge and analytical depth.
Regarding the specific teaching procedures, it’s essential to elucidate basic concepts and theoretical frameworks first. For instance, the section on “Physical Oceanography” includes topics like tides, ocean currents, El Niño, Southern Oscillation, waves, storm surges, etc. These themes involve different characterization methods but can be organized into a relatively comprehensible system based on energy sources and their transmission methods. Energy is derived from celestial tidal forces and solar radiation, with the former leading to tides and the latter causing thermal energy transfer and ocean-atmosphere interactions across different spatial-temporal scales.
Secondly, a series of typical cases should be selected to reinforce the characteristics of Earth science research. For instance, in discussing the relationship between humans and the ocean, two cases with vastly different time scales can be employed – the relationship between Holocene sea-level changes and the accelerated evolution of human civilization processes, and the earlier connection between humans and the ocean (tracing the ancestry of mammals to the history of marine fishes). The former involves time scales ranging from millennia to tens of thousands of years, while the latter spans billions of years. Although the data and information for analysis are derived from stratigraphic records, the focus of attention, questions addressed, data collection methods, and analysis techniques vary significantly due to the differences in time scales.
Thirdly, marine science applications should be used as examples to illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary integration. Marine science has broad applications: paleoceanography can elucidate the formation and evolution of mineral resources such as iron ore, research on the origin of marine life is linked to modern medicine, the interaction between land and sea profoundly impacts coastal economic development, ecosystem diversity is crucial for environmental quality, new disaster reduction technologies are needed for climate change-induced disasters, and scientific support is essential for enhancing international maritime law. Additionally, the future relationship between humans and the ocean involves issues of value orientation, lifestyle changes, social governance, etc. Thus, the integration of history and humanities is also crucial. Focusing on sustainable development issues for human society, this course selects coastal economic and social development, environmental and ecological protection, and responses to climate change as key points of discussion.
Finally, for the particular students taking the course, this curriculum does not presuppose a specific starting point for Earth science knowledge. Each concept and term introduction seeks to be comprehensive, with mathematical expressions minimized. The current accessibility of online resources and convenient conditions for extracurricular reading are advantageous for students’ self-learning. To encourage students to form their knowledge systems through exploration, the course provides fundamental literature in the field of marine science, including major classical works. Furthermore, each section includes “extended readings” to facilitate a closer connection between students and researchers, thereby enhancing their understanding of ongoing work in the field. The examination format for this course emphasizes the cultivation of abilities such as characterization, comparison, analysis, and discussion logic. Simultaneously, students are made aware that one of the fundamental natures of scientific inquiry is the uncertainty of answers to questions. Therefore, many contents in this course are open to questioning, debate, and discussion.
As time flies, twelve years have passed since the initiation of the course in 2011. During this period, the Academic Affairs Office of Nanjing University provided support for curriculum development; students who chose the course offered valuable feedback for improvement; faculty members from the Department of Coastal and Ocean Science at Nanjing University, including Zhang Jicai, Liu Shaowen, Yang Yang, Gao Jianhua, Yu Qian, successively participated in the teaching of this course and provided helpful suggestions; friends from marine research institutions contributed precious on-site photographs; and Ms. Bao Huifang from Shanghai Science and Technology Press provided editorial assistance for the publication of this course. I extend my sincere gratitude to all those involved.
Gao Shu, Kunshan Building, Nanjing University, June 30, 2023