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by Kurt Holland
Science Communication Consultant, Ocean Literacy Specialist

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August 31, 2016
Cultivating Coastal Conservationists: Pathways to Coast and Ocean Literacy with Gold Standard PBL

by Kurt Holland
Science Communication Consultant, Ocean Literacy Specialist

Surf rolled in, surfers launching themselves across the steep face; beachgoers examined bright red lobster carapaces; tourists studied intriguing patterns in the sand. It was Malibu, California in all of its briny essence, an invigorating setting for play, fresh ocean air, and a distinctively engaging coastal place for Project Based Learning. We were having fun too, working hard, doing coastal science…

Specifically, we were BioBlitzing, enjoying an entry event, and responding to a challenging question about the relationship between marine biodiversity and intense levels of human activity. BioBlitzs are short events that bring student scientists to a particular location to document biodiversity, fill data gaps, and discover nature. On this particular day, I was working as a science education researcher alongside the National Park Service for a branch of National Geographic. Our research question was straightforward and frequently heard in this time of transition to student centered learning: How can teachers leverage the learning energy produced by exciting, but very brief, coastal BioBlitzs to produce enduring science learning? Most PBL teachers, including me, already know the answer to this question, so my personal driving question was slightly different: How can we use the proven strategies of PBL to serve the needs of students even as we recruit the next generation of science oriented coastal conservationists?

The answer to these two questions is straightforward – harvest this energy and use its power to launch sustained project-based learning – and complicated in an educational world still constrained by memorization mania, test excess, and slavish service to standards. However, science at the coast is cool, students love the beach, and they love executing thoughtfully organized coastal science projects, even students who live far from the coast! There is enormous power in this love, power enough to change the world, however complicated. Weaving the human affinity for the ocean into effective PBL clears the path to coast and ocean literacy, to student centered learning that guarantees positive outcomes for both our students and our nation’s increasingly crowded coastlines.

Create a Coastal Literacy Project
Waves are to surfers as coastal science projects are to learners: both launch enduring passion and spur sustained effort, and in some cases, lifelong commitment. Watching today’s student scientists sorting colorful marine organisms, I found myself reflecting on the sustained projects (months to over a year long) my own students had done: restoring wetland habitat in the coastal mountains, monitoring water quality in watersheds, fighting for access to shorelines for underserved populations, communicating in public forums. They were all doing coastal science projects, but in many different settings, as comfortable in boardrooms as they were at beaches! Former students are active at sea in maritime careers, work on the shore somewhere as natural resource managers, and frequently choose college majors related to coastal management or ocean science.

I want to be clear that it was not my teaching that generated these outcomes, certainly not the lectures of my early teaching days. Instead, this is evidence that carefully structured PBL, with ample student voice and choice and authentic tasks in distinctive coastal places, is life changing. Now our task is to get PBL to every child, to evolve from one-day field events to authentic long-term projects. So, the question remains: How do we turn engaging short term events like the Malibu BioBlitz into the sustained inquiry that characterizes effective coast and ocean literacy projects? To start:

  • Develop a “Gold Standard PBL” classroom and use coastal locations or carefully defined watersheds to focus the investigation geographically. (In this blog, we concentrate on two strategies that support coast and ocean literacy projects, as Gold Standard PBL is covered elsewhere).
  • Partner with local organizations like natural history museums, state organizations such as the California Coastal Commission (CCC), or nationally with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who are focused on the coastal oceans.
  • Culminate with students providing taking action (a public product) in their own communities and watersheds: school, park, or beach clean-ups, habitat restoration, water quality monitoring, or science communication campaigns are all examples of coastal stewardship actions.

Cultivate Coastal Conservationists with PBL
Strategy One: Start in your school, everyone is in a watershed, and these water sculpted drainage basins connect inland dwellers to the sea via creeks, rivers, lakes, and estuaries. One example of starting at school: perform a schoolyard cleanup. This action prevents schoolyard trash from becoming animal killing “marine debris” further downstream in the coastal oceans.  Records from beach cleanups indicate that 80% of the trash on California beaches originates far from the sea and is borne into the ocean via creeks and rivers. In essence students are “saving the whales” by helping to remove some of the threats coastal ocean creatures endure. Environmental action taken where your students live is easily scaled to other settings, including the beach, when the time right.

While it would be nice if every class could get to the beach weekly, it is the process of the project that matters more than the exact location. PBL teacher-facilitators can make the coastal connection authentic with just a bit of effort. For example, students can be shown images of ocean phenomena like waves, coastal zone features, or by employing the remote sensing technology that is used to explore the ocean and atmosphere. Extreme weather events (hurricanes, El Nino, large surf events) and their related Earth systems also intrigue many students, frequently raising questions that require sustained inquiry and experimentation to answer. Both NOAA and NASA have appealing satellite images and easy to use data portals that encourage real time ocean investigations or sea level rise visualization exercises. 

Partner for Coast and Ocean Literacy Projects
Strategy Two: Connect your students to early career coastal policy managers, restoration ecologists, ocean engineers or other coastal zone professionals. Forging these connections can be time consuming, often requiring persistent effort. However, this effort is sure to bear fruit for students as coastal zone professionals of every kind are already inclined to support authentic learning. Consider our BioBlitz day; our students spent the day identifying, classifying, and measuring fascinating marine organisms alongside two inspiring Natural History Museum of Los Angeles scientists, Regina Wetzer and Dean Pentcheff.  Our shared purpose was to develop bioinformation for a marine genetics project. It was authentic science, supported by student work, launched by the invigorating marine environment.

When looking for partners in California, the public education program of the California Coastal Commission is your first stop. They offer varied educational programs (including a PBL guide, called “California Coastal Voices,” that is currently being reviewed by BIE National Faculty) that protect, enhance, and expand access to the California coast. If this sounds like a good match for aspiring coastal PBL teachers, you are correct. Nationally, one should turn to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which seeks partners for coast and ocean literacy projects on every coast, including the Great lakes. Finally, interested PBL teachers, from any coast or watershed, are encouraged to contact me if you would like to continue the conversation about serving students and cultivating coast and ocean stewards with PBL.

For more on information on the California Coastal Commission’s educational programs please visit their website.


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