Reaching far and wide: Education in the National Marine Sanctuary System

By Justin Packs

February 2019

The National Marine Sanctuary System helps raise awareness of our ocean and Great Lakes and inspires stewardship for our beautiful blue planet among people of all ages. Education and outreach of all types – including festivals, debris cleanups, and classroom visits – drives change and progress. By engaging in conversations and activities around the National Marine Sanctuary System, we develop a shared appreciation and understanding for the world we live in.

Here is a glimpse into just a few of many National Marine Sanctuary System education programs from the past year.

A virtual classroom

By connecting with national marine sanctuaries through virtual classrooms, educators around the globe have increased access to science-based learning. National marine sanctuaries webinars and virtual events provide educators with the informative and scientific expertise to foster ocean and climate literacy in the classroom. In 2018 alone, we directly reached more than 900 educators through our webinar series.

students wearing virtual reality headsets
Students in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa revel in the ocean’s beauty as they test new virtual reality headsets. Photo: Chiara Zuccarino-Crowe/NOAA

Virtual reality also brings people from all over the world below the sea. For example, this year National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa used a “Virtual Dive Expedition Kit” to provide groups with guided virtual tours of this spectacular underwater treasure. Through the use of this technology, audiences engaged in new and exciting ways to learn about ocean conservation.

The diverse coral reefs in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa can now be explored via virtual reality. Image courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey/The Ocean Agency

In addition, NOAA’s Mokupāpapa Discovery Center, University of Hawaiʻi, Waikīkī Aquarium, and Maui Ocean Center live-streamed scientists’ exploration of seamounts aboard the E/V Nautilus in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Over 2,400 people engaged in the expedition through ship-to-shore interactions.

Bringing the ocean to the big screen

Next stop: Hollywood. Films and film festivals are a powerful way we bring national marine sanctuaries to audiences. This year, Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary staff welcomed international student filmmakers for a presentation on environmental and underwater videography, taught by Gray’s Reef Film Festival member Kevin McCarey. Incredible footage of the sanctuary, along with virtual reality photos and images from the sanctuary’s newest camera-wielding tool, were shared with the students to inspire their own filmmaking.

Further north in Michigan, nearly 1,000 students had the opportunity to preview films for the sixth annual Thunder Bay International Film Festival. Many students chose to return with their parents throughout the remainder of the festival to share the films with family and friends. Through these films, the Alpena, Michigan community learned about important ocean and Great Lakes issues and ways they can make a difference.

people in a theater
Nearly 1,000 students learned how to practice responsible stewardship of the Great Lakes at the Thunder Bay International Film Festival. Photo: NOAA

In Texas, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary hosted a number of screenings of the film Chasing Coral, an Emmy Award-winning documentary about coral bleaching. Each of these screenings was followed by a discussion between sanctuary staff and the audience about the causes and possible solutions to this global threat. On World Oceans Day, a screening at Moody Gardens also featured models wearing beautifully detailed dresses inspired by the Chasing Coral and Plastic Ocean documentaries.

people wearing ocean-inspired dresses
Moody Gardens and Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary staff pose with models wearing dresses inspired by the documentaries Plastic Ocean and Chasing Coral. The Chasing Coral dress features a colorful coral reef on the front and a bleached reef on the back. Photo: Kelly Drinnen/NOAA

Ocean Guardian School Program expansion

When it comes to environmental protection efforts, kids are doing the heavy lifting. This past year, the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program expanded to Flower Garden Banks, Florida Keys, and Monitor national marine sanctuaries. This program supports school and community-based projects addressing issues affecting local watersheds and the ocean. In the 2018 academic year, NOAA supported an additional three Texas schools, five Florida schools, and two North Carolina schools under this program, adding to the 45 schools already in the program.

The Academy of Ocean Reef, a pre-K to 8th grade school in Florida, is working on a project focused on restoring local mangrove habitats, and in North Carolina, schools are focusing on recycling and collecting marine debris in their communities. At Oppe Elementary school in Texas, students showcased what they have been learning about the ocean through a display of their fall beach cleanup.

Heirs to our ocean: Youth-led conservation

students holding reusable straws
Ocean guardian students show off their plastic straw awareness at a local Santa Barbara restaurant. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

In April, the Santa Barbara City Council learned that elementary school students are quite possibly the most persuasive people in the community. Adams Elementary School’s third through sixth grade Ocean Guardian Ambassadors worked with two local non-profits and participated in a Santa Barbara City Council meeting where they shared the “Skip the Straw” campaign. These young students voiced their concern about the impacts of plastic pollution on marine life and were successful in convincing the City of Santa Barbara to ban the unnecessary use of plastic straws in all bars and restaurants starting July 1, 2019. For their efforts, the students received two prestigious local awards as environmental stewards.

Partnering with Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Quileute Tribal School students, as a result of their work with the Ocean Acidification and Plankton Monitoring Program, were selected by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) as one of two national recipients of Nickelodeon’s “Get Dirty! Ambassadors Program.” The student ambassadors are studying ocean acidification to increase their understanding of the changing ocean and the impacts to their cultural and natural resources, while also building awareness of the issue both locally and regionally. Programs like these foster the next generation of marine scientists and educators.

students in front of a sign that says get dirty
Five Quileute middle school students, Xavier, Gabe, Addy, Ruby, Kevin, and their science teacher Alice Ryan were selected by NEEF as the first cohort of Nickelodeon “Get Dirty! Ambassadors.” The team proposed a learning expedition to study ocean acidification in partnership with Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NEEF

Ocean acidification toolkit

Worried about the health of the ocean? We’ve got just the tools to help. The ocean’s changing chemistry, also known as ocean acidification, is a difficult topic to tackle, but our new toolkit can get you started. Partnering with scientists from the NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program, national marine sanctuaries along the West Coast teamed up to create one of the biggest projects of the year: a case study on how Dungeness crab may be impacted by ocean acidification. Based on NOAA research, this toolkit includes an infographic, fact sheet, PowerPoint with a script, video clips, and other resources to communicate the impact of ocean acidification on Dungeness crabs. Educators now have access to information about the economic and cultural importance of the Dungeness crab species and its vulnerability to changing ocean conditions.

Visitor center takes on new challenges

In times of danger, the sanctuaries are always there to help. The Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo was established in 2003 to educate the public about the ecosystems protected by Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. But after the eruptions of the Kīlauea volcano at Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park in May, it switched gears to teaching visitors about the impact of volcanic activity on the Hawaiian islands. The Discovery Center also housed National Park Service staff who were temporarily displaced after eruptions closed their visitor center. In an effort to reduce the impact of the eruptions, the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center hosted a pop-up park where rangers communicated information to the public and eased their worries.

Taking out the trash

It’s cleanup time. Marine debris is a serious issue that national marine sanctuary education programs work to address. Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary keeps Washington beaches clean of marine debris through beach cleanups, education, and prevention. Working in partnership with Washington CoastSavers, the sanctuary held beach cleanups on Earth Day and International Coastal Cleanup Day to reduce the impacts of marine debris on wildlife, make the shores safer for recreation, and preserve the beauty of the beaches. This year, more than 2,000 volunteers removed approximately 22 tons of trash from Washington beaches.

For 2018’s Get Into Your Sanctuary celebrations, the NOAA Marine Debris program provided funding to help Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary staff and local partners clean up two miles of the Smuggler’s Cove coastline on Santa Cruz Island. They collected two tons of trash, including 75 lobster traps that had washed up on the beach.

All in all, our sanctuary system cleanup efforts removed over 78,000 pounds of trash and marine debris in 2018.

Teaching our teachers

Even teachers don’t know everything! In 2018, the National Marine Sanctuary System collaborated with with over 6,500 educators to integrate ocean and climate information into their classrooms.

In an October teacher workshop, Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary took teachers on a field trip to get a closer look at their local sanctuary. The workshop focused on the importance of sanctuaries and NOAA’s efforts to gather data on ocean noise pollution. Teachers were inspired to promote communication and problem solving with their students, applying real-world-driven education in the classroom. Similarly, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s teacher workshops helped educators build familiarity with their local sanctuary.

Over the summer, teachers visited Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary for a climate change teacher workshop sponsored by the South Shore Natural Science Center. Sanctuary staff provided the teachers with information about the sanctuary, ongoing research programs, and climate change issues that may impact Stellwagen Bank waters, a particularly relevant topic as the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s ocean. Similarly, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary partnered with Artist Boat to host a four-day NOAA Planet Stewards workshop for middle and high school teachers, with a focus on environmental impacts to the Gulf of Mexico.

Festival fun, family fun

Festivals are one of the best ways to engage the whole family. The famous white sharks of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary were the stars of SharktoberFest 2018. The festival, hosted by Greater Farallones Association and Shark Stewards, featured shark experts, a Shark Science Station, and shark photography and films. Visitors enjoyed hands-on activities, such as Sharkitecture 101: “Build a Shark,” explaining shark physiology and adaptations, and “Tag the Shark,” which prompted discussion about conserving the white shark breeding population using telemetric tracking. Throughout 2018, our educators went to numerous festivals around the country that had a combined attendance of over 112,000 people.

Keepers of history

Preserving our nation’s maritime heritage is sometimes overlooked, but Monitor National Marine Sanctuary is here to change that. Sanctuary staff created three new curriculum guides that improve educators’ understanding of sanctuary research through STEM concepts and provide a unique, interesting way to promote the protection of our nation’s maritime heritage. For over 40 years, the sanctuary has led the charge in preserving the United States’ first Civil War ironclad, the USS Monitor, and over 200 tons of artifacts. Drawing on this experience, the sanctuary and its partners also discovered three new shipwreck sites, and have explored over 50 World War I and World War II shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast.

Educating for the future of the ocean

These examples are just a sample of the engaging ways our National Marine Sanctuary System education team has worked to enhance public awareness and appreciation of national marine sanctuaries. We strive to inspire ocean and climate literacy and conservation of these special ocean and Great Lake treasures. In 2018, our team exposed 85,767 youth and adults and an additional 42,259 students to the National Marine Sanctuary System. We look forward to continuing to connect people to our national marine sanctuaries in unique and surprising ways.

Justin Packs is a volunteer intern for the Education and Outreach Division at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.