In Florida, an Ocean for Life student participant takes underwater photos while snorkeling. Students’ photos and videos became part of “youth media projects” that allowed students to share what they learned with their families and friends. ©NOAA and National Geographic Photo Camp 2009
On September 11, 2001, three Washington, D.C., students flying to California perished when their hijacked plane crashed. They were going to join other students on a science expedition to Channel Islands National Park, where they would study the ocean environment.
In the wake of this tragedy, Daniel J. Basta, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, wanted to honor those students by bringing students together to increase ocean literacy. He and his colleagues also wanted the program to involve both Western and Middle Eastern students to help resolve cultural misunderstandings by showing how all people are connected by—and connected with—oceans, explains Jonathan Shannon, education liaison for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Addressing issues threatening ocean health is “not for one country alone,” he adds, and “it’s going to take the younger generation to do that.”
Holding the program at marine sanctuaries “seemed like a perfect fit,” says Shannon, because a marine sanctuary is a “neutral ground” where people can work together for a common cause: the importance of oceans for all life. To create the Ocean for Life (OFL): Enhancing Cultural Understanding Through Ocean Science program, Basta reached out to two partners, the GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) Program and SCUBAnauts International (SNI). The GLOBE Program (www.globe.gov) enables students, teachers, and scientists worldwide to collaborate on inquiry-based investigations of the environment and the Earth system; the program has been involved with ocean research since its beginning, says Teresa Kennedy, director of GLOBE’s International Division and North America Regional Office and U.S. country coordinator. GLOBE’s Near East-North Africa Region includes schools in 12 Middle Eastern countries, so the program was instrumental in recruiting students from eight of those countries. SNI, which joined GLOBE last May, involves middle and high school students in marine sciences through underwater exploration and research activities.
After securing funding from corporate sponsors and donors and logistical support from NASA, the State Department, and other agencies, the partners chose 60 high school students from more than 400 applicants to explore the ocean and coastal areas in NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary or in California at the Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries. Students were selected based on essays they wrote about how they were affected by the ocean and their experiences interacting with persons from other countries and cultures, says Shannon. Extracurricular activities in science and involving other cultures enhanced a student’s chance to be chosen. Swimming ability was also a factor, and all students had to be fluent in English.
Bridging the Ocean Online
OFL coordinators set up a social networking platform that “worked very well” in getting the students acquainted, observes Shannon. Students created profiles and discussed their cultures, posing questions like “What would you pack in your suitcase to explain your hometown?” They also delved into ocean science topics like ocean acidification, the plight of endangered whale species, and reasons people fear sharks. Their online conversation helped them begin to explore OFL’s three themes: a sense of place, interconnectedness, and ocean conservation and stewardship.
The online chat really helped students bond, says Shannon. “When they all met, it was like they were old friends.”
Field Study and Multimedia Projects
The Florida field study took place July 15–25 with students from Armenia, Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Lebanon, Morocco, Norway, Pakistan, and the United States. Their activities included studying Keys’ ecosystems; snorkeling and reef fish counts; a day trip to Key West and the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center; and visits to the Dolphin Research Center and Turtle Hospital.
In California, Ocean for Life participants examine a red-beard sponge (Microciona prolifera). ©NOAA and National Geographic Photo Camp 2009
The California field study included students from Bahrain, Canada, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. From July 30 through August 9, this group learned about kelp forest ecology; explored rocky intertidal and sandy beach habitats; observed northern elephant seals; and enjoyed an overnight stay at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Both groups experienced “a lot of science,” reports Shannon. “We actually had the schedule too packed, I think.”
In both locations, students interviewed scientists and other marine experts. These interviews became part of their “youth media projects” featuring photographs and video. National Geographic photographers and American University film students served as mentors, training the students and helping them edit videos. These projects allowed students to share what they have learned with their classmates, friends, families, and communities. (See examples at www.oceanforlife.org.)
Between the two field studies (July 26–29), all 60 students met in Washington, D.C., “to see where decisions are made on preserving oceans,” notes Shannon. They toured national landmarks and attractions. In addition, non-U.S. students had an opportunity to visit their countries’ embassies.
The 2009 OFL was a pilot for what promises to be an annual program, provided funding is available, says Shannon. The pilot not only succeeded in immersing the students in ocean science, but also helped them establish long-term, global friendships. “Tearing them apart [at the end of the field studies] was almost impossible,” he adds.
Canadian student Samaah Jaffer summarized the students’ experience: “The ocean is a looking glass that reflects the differences and magnifies the similarities between us. I have learned that although we come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and social norms, on the inside, we are all the same. There are no two identical fish in the sea; likewise, we are all different. But the differences are to be accepted, not overlooked. There are so many dreams and aspirations that we share. When I look into the ocean, I feel peace that the rest of our world is lacking.”
Teachers should check http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/education/ofl/welcome.html and the GLOBE website for details about future OFL programs.