When Oysters Come into the Classroom

Like many adjunct professors at University of Maryland University College (UMUC), Daniel Grosse uses his “other” job to inform his teaching. For this faculty member in the Graduate Program in Environmental Management, however, that second job is not what students might expect.

Grosse operates an oyster farm.

It sounds like a big jump for a man who was born in Los Angeles and spent much of his youth in oyster-less Michigan. But, then again, maybe oyster farming was a natural destination for a marine biologist who was also interested in farming.

Before aquaculture, Grosse was engaged in dirt farming, first with cotton and dates on collective farms in Israel and then on a Native American farming initiative in Arizona.

“I got involved in a dirt-farming development project with the Hopis,” Grosse said. “It was high-tech, commercially viable dirt farming as a way of keeping young Hopis from leaving their culture.”

The project caught the attention of personnel at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which was interested in encouraging oyster farms on Smith Island and Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Wild oyster harvesting was a local tradition among the islanders, who trace their roots to settlers who arrived in the 1600s. But the Maryland Department of Natural Resources wanted to introduce farm-raised oystering—in which hatchery-bred oysters are suspended in cages underwater—to diversify the islanders’ economic base and to restore wild oyster populations.

So it recruited Grosse.

“It wasn’t exactly like the Hopi project but there were some similarities,” Grosse explained, noting that both encompassed cultural traditions, environmental issues and economic development.

After being tapped as an environmental consultant on other oyster-farming projects, his interest in the field grew and soon Grosse had his own oyster garden and then, with two partners, a full-fledged, if boutique, oyster farm. Today that operation, Toby Bay Island Oyster Farm on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, supplies sustainably raised oysters to farmers markets in the greater Washington metro area.

Taking Real-life Experience to Class

In 2006, Grosse began teaching online courses in UMUC’s graduate program in environmental management. Unobtrusively, oysters began to work their way into the classes.

“In the course I’ve taught the longest, Fundamentals of Environmental Systems, students are sometimes given a test question about oysters,” acknowledged Grosse, who also has a contract with the fisheries service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We look at oysters not just as a farm product but through the lens of the environment the oysters inhabit.”

Oyster farms are growing in popularity in the United States not only because of the “eat local” and farm-to-table food movements but because of their ability to filter plankton that thrive on excess nutrients and make waterways cleaner.

Stacey Willey, who took the Fundamentals of Environmental Systems class in 2016, was surprised—and delighted—when oysters popped into the classroom discussion. Willey works for the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge, Maryland.

“I didn’t expect to have a professor who was also a real oyster farmer,” she said. “I didn’t know he had an oyster farm until he mentioned it in class. Then he used oystering a bit when we were talking about nutrient runoff.

“His lectures were good … and he used real-life examples and situations to teach,” she added.

Willey and Grosse traded emails on oystering issues, and she consulted him when she and a classmate in another course wrote a paper examining the differences between commercial oyster farming regulations in Maryland and Virginia.

Another student, Jonathan Molineaux, ’16, came to the environmental management program without a background in science. Now a senior analyst at NOAA’s National Fisheries Service in Silver Spring, Maryland, he credits Grosse for guiding him on get-to-the-point scientific writing.

“He definitely helped prepare me for what I’m doing now, and he made me interested in this career field,” Molineaux said. “He expects good work from his students, and it’s clear that he’s really into his teaching and very much into his area of expertise.”

Molineaux recalls Grosse talking about “his oyster farming and how the environment either promotes or degrades the health of the animal.” The professor also let students know about seasonal job opportunities on oyster farms.

After earning his Master of Science, Molineaux enrolled in UMUC’s MBA program. He graduated in December.

Adjuncts Provide Industry Insight  

Robert Ouellette, chair of the Environmental Management Program, said all 12 of the adjunct professors in his program are practitioners in the environmental field and their insight strengthens students’ knowledge.

“This is a field that changes very, very fast,” he said. “The practical knowledge that these practitioners bring is very important to our students.” In particular, he said the federal government is no longer setting the lead so adjuncts with state, county and local-level experience are bringing important, value-added knowledge to the classroom.

“Most of our students are looking for a promotion, to switch jobs or to start their own companies. They want to know the state of the industry,” Ouellette said. “Practitioners who have years of experience can help separate the truth from fantasy.”

Ouellette said the Environmental Management Program, which launched two decades ago, has started leveraging online resources to link students to insider information. “Two or three times a week we provide all our teachers with what’s happening: meeting reports, conferences and job openings,” he explained. “They then email that to the students.”

The program is currently seeking a grant to test the effectiveness of the way it is disseminating industry information to students.

Most of the program’s students are professionals in environmental fields, but in narrowly specialized areas; about 20 percent are from outside the discipline. All of them need a broad picture of the field, Ouellette said, and he described Grosse as “one of the best teachers” to provide that.

Two years ago, Grosse added a second course to his teaching load: Environment Law and Policy Development, which he describes as an “environmental civics course.” The course looks at environmental law and explores policy creation, implementation and enforcement. A member of an oyster industry trade organization, Grosse goes to Capitol Hill every year to lobby on behalf of his livelihood, and in-class discussions often focus on the issues put before members of Congress.

“These are not partisan issues as much as they are clean water [issues], and issues related to insurance and trade,” Grosse explained. “If I can help bring real-world examples to the table related to principles we’re studying in class, it makes it more relevant.”

As an oyster farmer Grosse deals with watermen, wholesalers, retailers, farmers’ market customers, restaurants, shippers, hatcheries, universities, health and environmental regulators, local and federal legislators, third-party certifiers and others.

“I get hands-on experience with how the condition and resources of local waters affect many different stakeholders,” he said. “Discussing seemingly provincial oyster issues with my students is a window to more general links between environmental quality, marine resources and human health.”