William & Mary pursues bachelor’s in marine science at School of Marine Science

  • W&M undergraduate student holds a blue crab found during a field class at VIMS' Eastern Shore Laboratory
    W&M undergraduate student holds a blue crab found during a field class at VIMS' Eastern Shore Laboratory     VIMS
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Proposed program would be first public undergraduate marine science degree in Virginia


William & Mary is moving forward with a proposal for the first undergraduate marine science program at a public university in Virginia.

The Board of Visitors approved the measure to submit plans for the degree to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). That review process by SCHEV will determine whether the university may implement the new program.

William & Mary’s School of Marine Science, currently offering a professional master’s degree and two research degrees (M.S. and Ph.D.), is ranked among the top institutions of its kind in the U.S.

“William & Mary’s School of Marine Science is preeminent in the country,” said Provost Peggy Agouris. “It only makes sense to extend our world-class expertise in coastal and marine science to undergraduate students in a dedicated program that will enable them to enter a deeply impactful career field.”

The university has offered a minor in marine science since 2010, with faculty members from the School of Marine Science at W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) partnering successfully with Arts & Sciences to administer the program.

The popularity of undergraduate marine science courses at W&M has nearly tripled since 2019, driven, university leaders believe, by the increasingly urgent issues faced by coastal and marine communities globally. Tackling water issues is also a top priority in the university’s strategic plan, Vision 2026.

“Growing up on a peninsula has caused me to always have an interest in marine science,” said Darius McCallum '27, a W&M Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience student. “From marine ecology to oceanography, this vast interdisciplinary subject has always been appealing to me ... I am ecstatic that they are announcing a marine science major at William & Mary. It would allow me to further explore my interests within this amazing field.” McCallum was able to further his interest in marine science at a young age, as a camper in the Estuary Explorers summer camp offered through VIMS and the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Virginia (CBNERR-VA) and VIMS; he went on to serve as a junior counselor for the VIMS/CBNERR-VA summer camps.

Leaders say that students are attracted by the idea of coupling William & Mary’s singular liberal arts education with the School of Marine Science’s nationally recognized research capabilities in a new STEM program focused on solutions-based training for coastal and marine systems.

“As the pace of global change accelerates in coastal communities and marine systems, the need for highly trained scientists has never been greater,” said Derek Aday, dean of William & Mary's School of Marine Science and director of VIMS. “Offering an undergraduate degree that promotes deeper understanding of and creativity in addressing the most challenging problems facing these highly populated areas will ensure a pipeline of problem solvers for the Commonwealth and coastal communities worldwide.”

Serving Students — and the Commonwealth

Right now, students interested in a bachelor's degree in marine science in Virginia leave the Commonwealth or pursue other programs. Notably, marine science was the top-sought program in the southeastern Academic Common Market, a tuition-savings program that offers in-state tuition for students who are forced out of state because of the unavailability of certain degrees.

A few public institutions in Virginia offer undergraduate degrees in related fields, but not in marine science specifically. One private university – Hampton University – offers a bachelor’s degree in marine and environmental science.

Further, VIMS is unique among marine science institutions in its mandate from the Commonwealth to provide research, education and advisory services to government, citizens and industry. All three of these mission priorities will feature prominently in the proposed undergraduate degree program.

Taken together, the mix of world-class expertise, research and advisory activity at VIMS promises to offer unparalleled opportunities to Virginia undergraduate students committed to pursuing marine science at William & Mary.

These include expanded study-abroad opportunities for undergraduate marine science students through the William & Mary network. The School of Marine Science has for decades hosted a Research Experience for Undergraduates program, funded by the National Science Foundation.

The proposed new degree program also includes plans for a marine science immersion semester at VIMS. As envisioned, undergraduate marine science students will be transported to and from the VIMS campus in the fall of their junior year to complete classes and engage in research and internships.

“The proposed degree with its immersive semester would provide a unique experiential learning opportunity for undergraduate students,” said Siddhartha Mitra, associate dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Marine Science. “Similarly, student engagement with researchers in VIMS’s advisory services would help students learn about the ongoing problems faced by Virginia’s coastal communities and how scientists tackle them.”

Moving Forward for Approval

The next step toward launching the degree program is submitting a proposal to SCHEV, the Commonwealth’s coordinating agency for higher education, Agouris told the Board of Visitors last week.

Exact dates for that submission have not yet been finalized. Organizers are aiming for a program launch in the fall 2025, though that will depend on a number of factors as the program is reviewed and details are solidified over the next year.

The idea for a bachelor’s in marine science has been under consideration in some form since 2019, though it gained serious traction as enrollments in marine science courses offered for the minor exploded and a growing number of students sought opportunities for research and internships through VIMS and its regional partners.

Since 2021, with support from Aday and other university leaders, Marine Science faculty have been working to develop proposed curricula and soliciting feedback and improvements from other areas, including Arts & Sciences. The School of Marine Science faculty voted on the proposal in November 2023, with the Arts & Sciences Educational Policy Committee following this past February and the full Arts & Sciences faculty in April.

“Virginia is at the forefront of global challenges in coastal, estuarine, and marine ecosystems,” said Christopher Hein, VIMS director of Undergraduate Programs. “We have more than 7,000 miles of coast, experience the second-fastest rate of sea-level rise in the country, and have an economy deeply tied to the Chesapeake Bay and its myriad resources. 

“Our William & Mary students recognize that, and more than ever want to be a part of the science tackling challenges and identifying solutions. If approved, this new program will advance our ability to educate the next generation of leaders in marine science, setting them up for graduate school, or employment in government, NGOs or the private sector.”