Ocean Guardian Schools: Action-Based Environmental Education for Science and Stewardship

Megan Howes

April 2017

A healthy ocean starts with all of us, and through the Ocean Guardian School Program, students are showing that they too, can make a big difference for the ocean. Students, parents, and teachers: you can get your school involved to foster ocean literacy and environmental stewardship. Applications for the 2017-18 school year are being accepted until May 1, 2017, so sign up soon!

Ocean Guardian School grants are awarded annually to fund hands-on school- or community-based projects that make a difference for the health of the ocean and local watersheds, while teaching stewardship values. The grants, which range from $1000 to $4000, are supported by the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, in coordination with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. The program originated in 2009 with 11 schools in California, and has grown since then to directly include over 40,000 students across 84 schools. Information about the grant process is available on the Ocean Guardian website.

students with nets collecting samples near the shore
Ocean Guardian students explore the Potomac River watershed. Photo: J.C. Parks Elementary School

Ocean Guardian Schools carry out impactful, year-long projects that encourage students in grades K-12 to explore their local ecology, learn about their watershed and its connection to the ocean, identify connections between their actions and the health of the environment, and forge a personal sense of stewardship and environmental leadership. Ocean Guardian School projects are aligned with one of the established five pathways: minimizing waste with the 4 R's (reduce, reuse, refuse, recycle); marine debris; watershed restoration; schoolyard habitat or garden; and energy and ocean health. Each pathway provides a flexible framework for creating projects that become sustainable for the long term. Visible, ongoing projects achieve the program's overarching educational goal of raising awareness of land-ocean connections and human impact. By encouraging everyday actions in students, families, and communities, Ocean Guardian School projects collectively have a significant impact.

students holding up an ocean guardian banner celebrating their fifth year
Students at Goleta Family School celebrate five years of Ocean Guardian projects. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

"The Ocean Guardian School projects show students that their actions do make a difference and that the changes they can make in their daily lives affect the health of the ocean" explains Seaberry Nachbar, director of the Ocean Guardian School Program. "This seed of change that is created within the school slowly grows out towards the community. In turn, it empowers others to become engaged in the future of their environment. We have seen over and over again that young people want to make a difference. They see their environment changing and given the tools and resources to make a difference -- they will."

Students take active ownership in carrying out Ocean Guardian School projects. Over the course of a school year, they apply the scientific method to collect measurable data, then communicate their findings to their community. For example, Adams Elementary School in Santa Barbara, California, is using their second year of Ocean Guardian funding to continue to tackle single-use plastics on campus, and to improve their school-wide recycling program. Also in Santa Barbara, 20 seventh graders from La Cumbre Junior High School are currently analyzing types and amounts of trash they collect at a local beach. Their data will be used to design and build a permanent education display to inform visitors of the problems caused by marine debris -- a step toward managing the issue locally.

sign above a rain barrel describing the collection of rain water for organic gardens
Ocean Guardian School projects can include collecting rainwater for organic gardens. Photo: Naomi Pollack/NOAA

On the East Coast, North Point High School in Waldorf, Maryland, is using their third consecutive grant to continue efforts to educate staff, students at other schools in the district, and the broader community about how everyone's actions affect the local Chesapeake Bay watershed. This particular project also involves educating the community about national marine sanctuaries and how they play into the bigger picture of climate change and ocean health. Students are also planting trees and native vegetation to support habitat for local wildlife, reduce runoff, and improve local water quality. Later in the school year, they are planning to calculate the total amount of carbon the projects removed from the atmosphere. Last year, Lolita Kiorpes, an 11th grade biology teacher who leads her school's Ocean Guardian activities, was recognized by an EPA Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators.

The Ocean Guardian School program isn't just valuable to the ocean; it's valuable to parents, too. A recent socioeconomic study looked at the objective and perceived value of the Ocean Guardian program, which is offered at no cost to parents. The study surveyed California parents whose children participated in Ocean Guardian School activities. Of the 270 responses, 90 percent were supportive of their child's participation. A large majority of parents reported that their child had an increased responsibility toward the environment (72 percent) and an increased understanding of their interactions with the environment (67 percent).

Beyond the environmental and scientific educational value, the program provides firsthand lessons in community engagement and teamwork. One parent noted, "It was a surprise! Knew nothing about [Ocean Guardian School Program] until it happened. It was refreshing that something happened without having to push for it."

The study also concludes that with proper program planning and design, the direct benefits of hands-on environmental education far exceed costs of grants. Additional benefits also include the value-added of school projects to local communities -- such as invasive species removal and reduced energy use -- and the long-term impacts of changed behaviors.

Ocean Guardian School grants are available to schools in specific counties in California, Washington, and Oregon; however, other valuable action-based Ocean Guardian programs such as the Ocean Guardian Classroom and Zero Waste Week are open to all schools across the country. If your students are eager to learn about ocean conservation and promote sustainability, propose a project and join the growing ranks of Ocean Guardians! Hands-on engagement and active stewardship education have a demonstrated positive impact on students, schools, and communities.

Megan Howes is the constituent and legislative affairs intern for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.