USM Ocean Engineering Program Produces First Graduates, Meeting Needs of Blue Economy

Published 9:19 am Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The School of Ocean Science and Engineering (SOSE) at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) recorded a historic milestone earlier this month as the first students from the University’s ocean engineering program received their undergraduate degrees.

Sydni N. Crain, from Poplarville, Miss., and Andrew P. Smith, from Madison, Miss., became the first students to complete the rigorous program, which was launched in the fall of 2017. The significance of the moment was not lost on SOSE Associate Director Dr. Jerry Wiggert.

“I was absolutely thrilled to see our first graduates walk during the commencement ceremony,” said Wiggert. “I led the original development of the program’s curriculum and shepherded it through the various elements of University and IHL Board approvals. Thus, seeing in person our first graduates from the program was extremely gratifying and rewarding.”

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USM’s School of Ocean Science and Engineering offers the only bachelor’s degree in ocean engineering degree in the State of Mississippi and one of only 10 such programs in the nation. The program features interdisciplinary coursework that integrates multiple engineering fields (e.g., mechanical, civil, electrical, computer, environmental).

USM is a recognized leader in marine science exploration and education in the Gulf South region, with world-class research facilities such as the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Miss., the Marine Research Center at the Port of Gulfport in Gulfport, Miss., and within the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss.

The ocean engineering program is housed at the University’s Gulf Park campus in Long Beach, Miss. Collaboration between ocean engineering and other oceanographic disciplines within SOSE allows students the opportunity to engage in other marine-related fields of study.

As defined by the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs, while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem.” With successful completion of its initial four-year ocean engineering curriculum, USM can take pride in providing engineers to the burgeoning blue economy workforce within Mississippi and beyond.

Dr. Kemal Cambazoglu, assistant professor of ocean engineering at USM, points out that producing the program’s inaugural graduation class comes at an opportune time, as the need for ocean engineers continually grows. He emphasizes that the University is uniquely positioned to meet that demand.

“The United Nations proclaimed a ‘Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)’, and it is timely that we have a new ocean engineering program training engineers who will work on the design of a variety of projects within the ocean environment,” said Cambazoglu. “Among our two other undergraduate degree programs – marine science and marine science with hydrography emphasis – our ocean engineering program will continue to educate and train highly-skilled students who are highly sought-after and who will work on engineering solutions within the ocean environment.”

USM’s ocean engineering program was established to meet a critical need for workforce development related to the blue economy. Dr. Gero Nootz, assistant professor of ocean engineering at USM, says statistics show that 35 percent of the workforce in three Gulf Coast counties – Harrison, Jackson and Hancock – is related to the blue economy, with a contribution of $14.9 billion toward Mississippi’s Gross Domestic Product.

“However, the employed workforce is under-educated for technology-related jobs,” said Nootz. “The blue economy is projected to be one of the fastest-growing segments of the national economy in the coming years. Students in our program are ideally positioned to make significant contributions in this critical area of ocean engineering.”

Nootz likens ocean engineering to aerospace engineering in that it prepares students to succeed in an environment that poses unique challenges.

“Waves, currents, high pressure, corrosive saltwater, limited visibility and communications are just some of the hurdles one faces when developing technology for the ocean environment,” said Nootz. “Ocean engineers understand the particular issues and have developed strategies to overcome them.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average ocean engineering salary was $98,730 per year in 2019. Ocean engineering is the only engineering discipline specifically designed for projects within the ocean environment, including but not limited to:

  • Instrumentation/sensor development
  • Autonomous vehicle design and applications
  • Coastal engineering and protection
  • Ocean modeling and forecasting
  • Oceanographic and hydrographic applications
  • Ocean monitoring and remote sensing applications

Cambazoglu notes that part of the program’s strategy for growth will be to increase the number of faculty and expand internship opportunities for students within the curriculum.

“This will bring new expertise to our program, allow us to offer our students more senior-level elective courses and also enable the students to interact with a variety of faculty to widen their interests as they prepare for an engineering career,” he said. “Internships are an integral part of our degree-plan. We’d like to build official partnerships with federal/state institutions and industry partners to create new internship opportunities for our students to get invaluable work experience before they graduate.”

Also included in the plan is a commitment to maintain high diversity within the program by exploring ways to improve relationships and connections with historically black colleges and universities, as well as diverse high schools in Mississippi. The program is already attracting a diverse student body with more than one-quarter of the 17 students currently enrolled being female.

The COVID-19 pandemic created unforeseen obstacles over the past year for students, faculty, and staff across all University units. Like all others, the ocean engineering program met the challenges head-on and persevered, despite many classes being taught remotely.

Even though the ocean engineering program has barely dipped its toes in the water, SOSE Director Dr. Joe Griffitt envisions a vast sea of potential.

“Seeing the first group of students graduate from the ocean engineering program is a testament to the hard work and dedication of those students, but also an illustration of the hard work and commitment from the faculty and staff who are responsible for developing and delivering these classes,” said Griffitt. “I look forward to watching many more students graduate from this outstanding program.”

To learn more about the ocean engineering program at USM, call 228.688.3177 or visit: