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Innovative Education Program Heightens Ocean Awareness

by Walter Bonora & Dawn Hayes
National Marine Sanctuaries

Raising marine environmental awareness within diverse communities carries with it unique challenges. For example, people living far inland don’t often feel a connection to the sea. A popular misconception is the ocean is large and infinite and thus can take care of itself. But California educators in Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara are taking an innovative approach to bringing ocean awareness to local communities not normally associated with the ocean.

A MERITO bilingual intern shares her knowledge at a recent Oxnard Earth Day event.
A MERITO bilingual intern shares her knowledge at a recent Oxnard Earth Day event. (Photo: Rocio Lozano-Knowlton)
Launched in 2002 by the National Marine Sanctuary Program, the outreach program known by the acronym MERITO (Multicultural Education for Resource Issues Threatening Oceans) is a marine conservation effort designed to reach culturally diverse groups. Working with a cadre of partners that include schools, government agencies and local and national marine sanctuary foundations, program staff participate in ocean and watershed education efforts serving students, teachers, adults and families living near the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands National Marine sanctuaries.

They do this by holding adult education presentations at centers serving Hispanic communities, mentoring and sponsoring bilingual college interns, and inviting families to participate in local field trips in an effort to involve the entire community in ocean conservation and watershed protection. Through broader knowledge of the sanctuaries and their associated watersheds, people will better understand the importance of protecting marine resources and their special qualities.

Karen Grimmer, now the acting superintendent of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, was the primary force behind the MERITO program. As its manager in 2002, Karen recognized the need to involve community leaders, teachers and other agencies in MERITO’s development.

“Our communities are multinational and multilingual in nature,” Grimmer said, “and so our programs needed to reflect the community in order to successfully communicate the importance of protecting our coastal and ocean resources.  The MERITO program has taken the sanctuary program a significant step closer to more effective education and outreach, and we need to develop long term funding sources to sustain the effort.”

The program has been embraced by local Hispanic communities and new outreach opportunities are proposed on a regular basis.  With success, comes expansion.  Program staff developed a process and model for expanding MERITO to sanctuary sites throughout the nation. The Channel Islands sanctuary was the first to use this model and has successfully replicated the development process based on community needs.

One of Monterey Bay’s MERITO successes has been its Watershed Academy afterschool program.  Staff, in partnership with a local school and the nearby Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, spent the 2002 school year developing new activities and field experiences to bring the importance of the watersheds and sanctuaries to students and their families.

The pilot program was such a success, the school district superintendent requested training for afterschool staff at all four middle schools to run the program.  After two years, the district has identified funds for a designated afterschool teacher to run the Watershed Academy for the district’s schools.

News of its effectiveness spread fast and now over 25 teachers and staff have brought the Watershed Academy program to over 750 students over four years.

Elise Pham receives grand prize award from MAD magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragones during a MERITO cartoon contest held this summer.
Elise Pham receives grand prize award from MAD magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragones during a MERITO cartoon contest held this summer. (Photo: Rocio Lozano-Knowlton)
In Santa Barbara and Ventura the MERITO effort is gaining steam within the local Hispanic communities for two main reasons. According to Barbara Balderman of the Ojai Valley Youth Foundation, “the program was developed in response to expressed community needs even if meeting those needs required non traditional approaches, such as youth art contests, to create environmental messages. Secondly, the program is being implemented in collaboration with community serving groups who work daily with members.”

Reaching Interns

The college intern mentoring effort has also proven helpful.  Claudia Pineda, one of MERITO’s first interns, altered her career plans after participating in the program.  “When I first started my internship I was concentrating on a formal science education with the intention of either teaching science in a traditional classroom setting or serving as a consultant who would teach science informally,” she said.

Claudia was subsequently hired to work part time as a bilingual education specialist with the MERITO program, while she completed her studies.  Now a graduate of California State University Monterey Bay with a degree in earth science systems and policy, Claudia is currently working for the University’s Watershed Institute.

Targeting all age groups, Rocio Lozano-Knowlton, MERITO coordinator in Santa Barbara and Ventura noted, “We want to inspire sanctuary ownership among multi-cultural citizens and help give them a sense of stewardship and motivate them to protect the ocean environment. In California, we also hope to motivate Hispanic youth to pursue careers in marine sciences. Through increased knowledge of our sanctuaries and their resources people will better understand the connection between our watersheds, coastal and offshore waters and will more likely contribute to ocean protection.”

But she added, “MERITO is not just Hispanic specific. In California, the emphasis is on Hispanic communities because of the large Hispanic population, but if we were in Hawaii, for example, we would reach out to native Hawaiian communities.”

Michiko Martin who heads up the national education effort for the sanctuary program sees great benefit from programs like MERITO. “Many people, young and old, have a strong emotional connection to the sea,” she says. “My challenge is to translate that enthusiasm to good stewardship. As an ocean educator, I show individuals how their personal choices and actions directly affect the ocean—the ocean on which their very lives depend.”

Martin emphasizes, “we are at a critical time for ocean education.  Superficial knowledge inadequately prepares individuals for making informed decisions about complex ocean issues.  MERITO offers an opportunity for us to reach those who may not normally form a connection with the ocean. To even begin to address balancing conservation and use in ocean ecosystems, people must understand the importance of the ocean to their daily lives and appreciate the impact of their decisions on ocean health.”

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