February 23, 2023

Framing an oceanography course around the Ocean Decade Challenges

Posted by Laura Guertin

The years 2021-2030 mark the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (https://oceandecade.org/). I first learned about the Ocean Decade from a session at the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting (blog post Dr. G’s #AGU18 Spotlight – The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want) and EOS article from the same year (Ocean Science Decade Comes at Time of Precarious Decline). At Ocean Sciences 2020, I attended a fascinating session on the cultural heritage focus for the Ocean Decade.

But when it came time to teach my oceanography courses, I had not done more than mention the Ocean Decade in passing, never really doing a deep dive into the mission and its components. After a several-year pandemic/sabbatical break from teaching an introduction to oceanography course for non-STEM majors, I decided to fully embrace the Ocean Decade in the course – by designing the entire course around the Ocean Decade Challenges.

The Ocean Decade has defined 10 challenges for collective impact (https://oceandecade.org/challenges/). For each challenge, there is a short video and description of the end goal. The challenges are listed in the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission’s publication IOC Brochure 2020-4, along with the Ocean Decade progress report, 2021-2022. The first State of the ocean report was published in 2022, and there will be an annual edition released during Ocean Month (June).

An overview video of the Ocean Decade Challenges, from UNESCO. See a playlist for all the Ocean Decade Challenge videos.


I list the Ocean Decade Challenges below to show how these challenges can provide a different framework in presenting oceanography material to university students. Instead of marching students through units on waves, tides, shoreline structures, etc., these topics can be incorporated in and connected to lessons and activities on the Challenges, with a wealth of current and global examples for classrooms to explore. In addition, as I have designed my ocean courses with the Ocean Literacy Principles in mind, this IOC document I found helpful to think about the direct connections between ocean literacy and the Ocean Challenges: Ocean literacy within the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable development: a framework for action.

Challenge 1 – Understand and beat marine pollution

Understand and map land and sea-based sources of pollutants and contaminants and their potential impacts on human health and ocean ecosystems and develop solutions to remove or mitigate them.

Challenge 2 – Protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity

Understand the effects of multiple stressors on ocean ecosystems, and develop solutions to monitor, protect, manage and restore ecosystems and their biodiversity under changing environmental, social and climate conditions.

Challenge 3 – Sustainably feed the global population

Generate knowledge, support innovation, and develop solutions to optimise the role of the ocean in sustainably feeding the world’s population under changing environmental, social and climate conditions.

Challenge 4 – Develop a sustainable and equitable ocean economy

Generate knowledge, support innovation, and develop solutions for equitable and sustainable development of the ocean economy under changing environmental, social and climate conditions.

Challenge 5 – Unlock ocean-based solutions to climate change

Enhance understanding of the ocean-climate nexus and generate knowledge and solutions to mitigate, adapt and build resilience to the effects of climate change across all geographies and at all scales, and to improve services including predictions for the ocean, climate and weather.

Challenge 6 – Increase community resilience to ocean hazards

Enhance multi-hazard early warning services for all geophysical, ecological, biological, weather, climate and anthropogenic related ocean and coastal hazards, and mainstream community preparedness and resilience.

Challenge 7 – Expand the Global Ocean Observing System

Ensure a sustainable ocean observing system across all ocean basins that delivers accessible, timely, and actionable data and information to all users.

Challenge 8 – Create a digital representation of the ocean

Through multi-stakeholder collaboration, develop a comprehensive digital representation of the ocean, including a dynamic ocean map, which provides free and open access for exploring, discovering, and visualizing past, current, and future ocean conditions in a manner relevant to diverse stakeholders.

Challenge 9 – Skills, knowledge and technology for all

Ensure comprehensive capacity development and equitable access to data, information, knowledge and technology across all aspects of ocean science and for all stakeholders.

Challenge 10 – Change humanity’s relationship with the ocean

Ensure that the multiple values and services of the ocean for human wellbeing, culture, and sustainable development are widely understood, and identify and overcome barriers to behaviour change required for a step change in humanity’s relationship with the ocean.



With this framework for my class, I can bring in topics that are fun to explore the connections and integration across disciplines, STEM and non-STEM. For example, Valentine’s Day just occurred prior to the writing of this blog post. Hakai Magazine has an article I shared with my class, titled Are You Giving Flowers with a Side of Plastic? The content of the article matches with more than one Challenge listed above. We read/discussed the article as a group, then each student was assigned to brainstorm in class an ocean-friendly Valentine’s Day gift. We reviewed/voted on the creative suggestions, even though they could not fully eliminate the impact on the ocean economy, climate, ocean pollution, etc. As a class, we have been able to talk about the team at Atlantic Sea Farms and their work in getting lobster fishers to become kelp farmers off-season. I have been able to incorporate my at-sea experiences with NOAA, on a past hydrographic survey on Thomas Jefferson to an upcoming expedition on Oscar Dyson in Alaska, where new technology will be used for pollock surveys.

These topics and more have served as an excellent bridge between the traditional oceanographic topics with the science of our ocean system, while highlighting solutions that incorporate sustainability, diversity, technology, and disciplines outside of STEM.