Classroom Innovator: Joellen Russell

Sept. 16, 2015

Use this one to impress your friends: Which U.S. university annually teaches the most students about oceanography?

Few would guess the University of Arizona, situated squarely in the middle of the desert Southwest. Among those who would, some are students enrolled in an introductory course taught by UA associate professor of geosciences Joellen Russell. Her oceanography class packs the 600-seat auditorium at the new Environment & Natural Resources Phase 2, or ENR2, building — and has an additional 200 students online.

At more than 1,600 students per year, "that's a significant fraction of all of our students coming out of the UA with a knowledge of how their world works," Russell says.

For some, their studies take an even deeper dive.

UA alumna Hannah Zanowski was inspired to pursue a career path as an oceanographer by taking Russell's class. Zanowski, who had a NASA Space Grant Internship with Russell during her senior year at the UA, went on to Princeton University for her doctoral work and is part of a team studying the Southern Ocean's role in climate regulation and ocean health.

"A land-grant (university) like the UA is a gift to the world," Russell says. "I want to open doors for students to the top levels of research and knowledge."

Russell says it shouldn't be so surprising that that the UA is capable of grooming the next wave of oceanographers, who number only about 6,000 worldwide.

"We've become a cutting-edge climate-conscious campus," she says. "We think people take (oceanography) because they are interested in the world and how it's changing. That's the perspective from which we teach.

"This is fundamental to what happens next in Arizona to our weather, heat and climate. It's so much fun to work at the frontier."

Russell, originally from rural Montana, says she enjoys providing opportunities to UA students that she didn't have at their age. The large venue at ENR2 doesn't faze her, she says.

"It suits my teaching style," says Russell, who has a $2.36 million grant over six years for Southern Ocean research. "I love to have the students talk to me."

For videos about other UA instructors in our "Classroom Innovators" series:

Paul Blowers

Dirk Mateer

Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman