Taking academia underwater

Graduate Studies, Education

- Suzanne Ahearne

Education grad Mike Irvine took academia beneath the waves for his scuba-diving master's defence

When education grad student Mike Irvine first posed his master’s project research question to his advisor, the idea struck Jason Price as a humourous oxymoron. Irvine wanted to explore how technology could be used as a tool to reconnect kids to nature. 

“A lot of research has been telling us that technology may be responsible for socially isolating kids and creating a disconnect with nature. But Mike,” recalled Price, “wanted to explore how technology might be used to bring kids closer together, and closer to the marine world in particular.” 

“I saw the irony,” admitted Irvine, “but I thought that the way to connect kids back to nature might just be the one thing conventional wisdom is telling us is standing in the way.” Irvine got the green light. 

For his master’s project in curriculum and instruction, the third-generation scuba diver studied to what extent underwater web cameras could be an effective tool for motivating and engaging students in marine science. 


Irvine created a pilot case study, which he conducted in a combined classroom of students from grades four to six. After conducting surveys with a group of students about their marine science knowledge and interests, then facilitating a curriculum unit about the history of a local marine environment (the Inner Harbour and Race Rocks), Irvine turned on a live ocean-to-surface feed from a stationary camera already in place.

“Almost instantly, students started to engage with it,” said Irvine. “They were excited about what they were looking at. They asked more questions. They dug deeper. And then real discussions started to happen.” 

That excitement is the hook that’s needed, says Irvine, to engage students in inquiry-based learning that’s more interactive and exploratory than traditional learning. 

“Inquiry is like improv,” says the 27-year-old whose undergraduate work at UVic was in Greek and Roman Studies and film. “If someone gives you something, you receive it and pass it on. You don’t just stop it in its tracks.”

“When a student asks a question,” he explains, “you take that question, and redirect it in a way that can guide the student toward a greater understanding.” 

This is a key piece of the research, he explains. When a student observes a phenomenon in real time, it elicits both an emotional response and an intellectual curiosity. 

Both STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy and ocean literacy follow the same fundamental principle: when we become more engaged, we are motivated to become more informed, and those informed decisions impact the planet.

Irvine’s intention was not to work as a classroom teacher. “I wanted to focus my efforts on bridging the extensive gap between the ocean and the public, to be able to take them from anywhere in the world, to any internet device and actually come diving with me,” he said. 

To that end, he led a mind-hive of UVic-connected graduate students and marine scientists, as well as teachers, dive industry people, and community organizations to co-found the Fish Eye Project, a not-for-profit organization using technology to highlight important marine research via live dives.

Communicating from underwater to surface is not that difficult. Nor is it that difficult to webcast it, said Irvine. “It’s just that we’re looking at it with a different lens and intention.”

To embody his research and test new ideas, Irvine pulled off what he believes to be the first live-streamed, ocean-to-surface, webcast master’s defence ever conducted. 

“We normally require an oral defence to take place on campus,” said David Capson, dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, “but we thought Mike’s research was so innovative we made an exception in his case. Defending his work underwater dramatically showed us how his creative use of technology will help to connect students with an ocean environment.” 

After many months of planning and logistics and help from colleagues, faculty and family, Irvine, jumped into the Salish Sea to make history in April. Price was on site at the James Island wharf with a dock-full of electronics; co-supervisor Mijung Kim was in attendance via teleconference from Alberta; department chair David Blades attended via teleconference from UVic.

“UVic is a leader in the areas of ocean research and what Mike’s done is created a potential for student scientists and citizen scientists from around the world to become engaged in our ocean research,” Price said after the defence went off without a hitch. 

As for the future, Irvine says: “This system we put together here is very mobile and I think we should start looking to other places in the world where people need help to get their marine research and marine sites opened up to the public. And hopefully from there, we’ll motivate a lot of people from different places to go beneath the waves and be the next researchers in the future, leading and pioneering the next wave of ocean communication.”

Irvine’s underwater defence was webcast live via YouTube from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, April 20: Beneath the Waves. (Webcast begins at minute 14:40 in the video below.)


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Keywords: education, alumni, graduate research, student life, convocation, curriculum and instruction, Fish Eye Project

People: Mike Irvine

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