Kids can: Foster Scholar Jenna Hartley empowers students and teachers to tackle marine debris in their communities

By Yaamini Venkataraman

November 2019

Kids these days show us they can do anything. From organizing rallies to encouraging people and businesses to make sustainable choices, Generation Z doesn’t back down from environmental challenges. So it’s only fitting that Jenna Hartley is working with Generation Z students and their teachers to see how young people can make waves teaching their communities about marine debris.

Hartley is a second-year student at North Carolina State University working toward her Ph.D. in parks, recreation, and tourism management. Her studies are being supported by the NOAA Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program, which provides support for master’s and doctoral degrees in sanctuary-related ocean sciences. She is studying how fourth and fifth grade students in North Carolina can be environmental change agents in their communities.

jenna hartley
Foster Scholar Jenna Hartley studies intergenerational learning. For her Ph.D. at North Carolina State University, she trains teachers from across North Carolina about marine debris. Photo courtesy of Jenna Hartley

“There’s emerging research that suggests information trickles up from kids to their parents,” Hartley says. “We’re [looking] at whether or not that happens from young people to other adults in their community, specifically on the issue of marine debris.”

When Hartley was growing up, she didn’t have a strong connection to science. In college, she first dreamed of being a Spanish teacher. However, inspired by a rafting trip through Colorado with her roommate, she switched to a major in geology. After completing her undergraduate degree, she spent four years teaching high school Earth science with the New York City Teaching Fellows Program before moving back to rural North Carolina to continue teaching environmental science in her hometown. She later obtained her master’s degree in environmental sciences and engineering and worked as a fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she met her current Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Kathryn Stevenson, at a conference. It was then that Hartley decided to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental education focusing on intergenerational learning.

Hartley describes her work as a “mountains-to-the-sea” initiative spanning the entire state of North Carolina. Marine debris, or trash in our ocean, often travels from land, making its way to the ocean by wind and on waterways. Debris can also come from lost fishing gear or other activities in the ocean. Working with the Community Science Team at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, Hartley is training teachers from 33 North Carolina counties to educate their students about marine debris, even if the problem caused by their actions is miles away.

pieces of plastic in a person's hand
Hartley’s “mountains to sea” initiative examines how students from across North Carolina can influence community perception of marine debris. Photo courtesy of Jenna Hartley

“We can connect kids from Asheville, North Carolina, to Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. It’s almost like moving the sanctuaries inland,” Hartley says.

During a two-day workshop, teachers are exposed to 14 different activities relating to marine debris, from a beach cleanup on the Rachel Carson Reserve to learning how lost fishing gear can entangle North Atlantic right whales. The teachers even participate in a trash audit — every piece of trash they generate is collected and organized at the end of the workshop. Hartley hopes the experience provided through the workshop will empower teachers to use these activities with their students.

teachers gathered together on a small boat
Hartley (bottom left) poses with North Carolina science teachers at Duke University Marine Laboratory. Hartley trains teachers from 33 North Carolina counties to educate their students about marine debris. Photo courtesy of Jenna Hartley

One activity Hartley hopes students take on is a community engagement project, so they can reach beyond their immediate families and discuss marine debris with other adults in their communities. So far, students have hosted a slam poetry night, performed in plays, spoken with their local board of education, and held an art exhibit. One group of students even convinced a local brewery to have a limited release beer with proceeds going towards a marine debris non-profit.

“Once you get them empowered, there’s no holding them back,” Hartley says. “One of the teachers said that after getting them excited, her role was just getting out of their way.”

a student holding a data collection worksheet
A student gathers data about marine debris during a beach clean-up. Photo courtesy of Jenna Hartley

Supporting the next generation of ocean stewards is well-ingrained in the National Marine Sanctuary System. Through the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program, local schools engage students in a school or community based conservation project. One of the teachers in Jenna’s project, Jason Vanzant, is also a recent recipient of the Ocean Guardian Schools Grant in North Carolina.

“Students are looking for ways to help protect the ocean, and the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program provides them with this opportunity,” NOAA Ocean Guardian School program manager Seaberry Nachbar says. Students in the Ocean Guardian School Program have the chance to gain vital communication skills and practice marine stewardship by working on a project.

“The work that [Hartley] is doing builds up the confidence of teachers who can then instill environmental values in the students they work with,” Nachbar says. Paired together, Hartley’s work and the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program “complement each other nicely.”

students posing for a photo with marine debris they collected
Students gather with debris they cleaned up. Hartley believes that youth participation in conversations surrounding marine debris are creating a “new social tipping point.” Photo courtesy of Jenna Hartley.

Hartley hopes that her work will inform education and outreach efforts across NOAA and the National Marine Sanctuary System. Although technology may one day be developed to clean up marine debris, changing consumer behavior is an integral part of preventing single-use plastics and other trash from ending up in the ocean. She also sees her research as part of a growing trend.

“Young people are influencing social and political conversations — it’s the age of youth right now for many topics, including marine debris,” Hartley says. “We’re at a new social tipping point where young people can go home and tell their parents to reconsider single-use plastic, and the parents listen. It’s a really powerful time to be doing social science towards environmental solutions.”

Yaamini Venkataraman is a volunteer social media intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at the University of Washington.