Announcing the 2017 Sea to Shining Sea Award winner

By Tracy Hajduk

December 2017

For five years, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has recognized outstanding achievement in the fields of interpretation and environmental education by presenting the Sea to Shining Sea Award for Excellence in Interpretation and Education to employees, contractors, and volunteers. The award recognizes demonstrated successes in advancing ocean and climate literacy and conservation through national marine sanctuaries. It also recognizes awardees’ innovation and creative solutions for successfully enhancing the public's understanding of the National Marine Sanctuary System.

This year, the award is presented to Michelle Riley for Georgia Public Broadcasting Live Exploration of Gray’s Reef.

michelle riley and tracy hajduk
Michelle Riley (left) received the award from the author (right) at the National Association of Interpretation conference in Spokane, Washington. Photo courtesy of Tracy Hajduk/NOAA

Through livestreaming, Riley worked with Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) to bring the marvels of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary to viewers all over the world.

The production of a livestream event was a new venture to both Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary staff as well as Georgia Public Broadcasting. It all started when Riley reached out to the local station manager of GPB Savannah to find a way to bring the amazing underwater ecosystem of Gray’s Reef to the people of Georgia. And from this, the livestream event was formed.

Working quickly, Riley and GPB’s Education division began to design and create a virtual dive to Gray’s Reef that could be livestreamed using existing underwater footage. Together the team created scripts to match the footage, with GPB’s education experts making sure each part of the program aligned to formal education standards. Early in the process, they began advertising the program to teachers, hoping to engage 3,000 students from Georgia.

The introduction from GPB’s Live Exploration of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Video courtesy of GPB

Since this was a live event, teachers needed to commit to changing class schedules and garner support from their principals to watch the program. School schedules are hard to change, and only a high-quality event would warrant the logistics a school would have to undertake to participate. Riley utilized her vast network of partners, including the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, the University of Georgia, and Georgia Sea Grant, who helped provide technical and internet support as well as space at the University of Georgia Aquarium. Sarah Fangman, then superintendent of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, and Dr. Scott Noakes, a researcher from University of Georgia, agreed to serve as science experts during the show. As word of the program spread far and wide, so did interest. PBS Learning Media and Discovery Education joined in, helping to expand this from a local Georgia event to an international event.

What resulted was an hour-long program that aired on May 10. The program reached over 45,000 students, more than 15 times the number they were hoping for. Students watched from 44 states as well as the District of Columbia, and tuned in from as far away as Romania. Gray’s Reef was in the spotlight.

A clip from the Live Exploration explains how researchers track fish movement. Video courtesy of GPB

The day of production went off seamlessly and livestream participants were introduced to some of the amazing species that live in Gray’s Reef and to issues like changing ocean conditions. Students also were given ideas of how they could help the ocean, no matter where they live. In addition, students answered polls and quizzes in real time, and sent questions in via Twitter and a chat box. They were thrilled when the scientists answered their questions and acknowledged them by name. GPB’s education staff created supplemental educational materials that aligned with K-12 education standards, all of which are archived on their website, along with the livestream event.

This project surpassed all expectations and has planted a seed: how might events like these bring remote places to students around the country? Riley’s innovation, ability to leverage partnerships, and experience in the broadcasting world created a model that can be replicated to expand national marine sanctuaries’ reach across America.

The Sea to Shining Sea Award was presented in November 2017 at the National Association of Interpretation conference in Spokane, Washington, during the federal awards ceremony. Riley also received a National Ocean Service Team Member of the Year award.

Congratulations to Michelle Riley for her excellence and dedication in enhancing ocean and climate literacy in national marine sanctuaries and enhancing public understanding of the National Marine Sanctuary System and the resources it protects through the Georgia Public Broadcasting Live Exploration of Gray’s Reef.

Former Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary superintendent Sarah Fangman answers a question from the audience. Video courtesy of GPB
Tracy Hajduk is the national education coordinator at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.