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Ocean Connectors: Using shark research to inspire youth

By Frances Kinney and Catherine Courtier, 22nd February 2017

The ocean is a vast and foreboding place, but also a place of complex and unexpected beauty. Unfortunately, not everyone is privileged enough to have access to the magnificent resources below the sea. Like many others involved in conservation today, we at Ocean Connectors often ask ourselves, ‘How can we expect future generations to care about marine resources if they don’t know about them?’

KINNEYfrances_ocean connectors: using shark research to inspire youth

Thanks to support from the Save Our Seas Foundation, these 4th grade Ocean Connectors students will be able to continue studying sharks in middle school. Photo © Anna Mar

Ocean Connectors utilises interdisciplinary STEM programmes to promote an early interest in environmental issues, bridging the gap between hard science and education by making the information more understandable and accessible. We currently have three established education models that focus on migratory species and we use them to involve students and their families in coastal conservation and increase their desire to protect and take responsibility for marine resources.

With funding from the Save Our Seas Foundation, and a small grant from the Edna Bailey Sussman Foundation that enabled us to hire Scripps graduate Catherine Courtier as an intern, Ocean Connectors has been able to lay the groundwork for our new shark programme and continue down our path of growth. Over the past six months we have visited 10 elementary schools in National City, California, made plans to visit two middle schools and communicated conservation messages to 907 children in Mexico. We have also purchased four outdoor microscopes, which are instrumental in bringing our shark curriculum to life by enabling the kids to look at real samples of shark teeth and skin.

KINNEYfrances_ocean connectors: using shark research to inspire youth

The new Ocean Connectors shark curriculum will use real data and research to help children understand that sharks need our protection. © Anna Mar

We chose the thresher shark as the focus of our new middle school science curriculum because of its local presence in San Diego, its migratory behaviour (from the coast of California down to Mexico) and its IUCN classification as Vulnerable. Topics covered in the curriculum include the life history of thresher sharks, their habitat, migration patterns, conservation status, threats and management, and their history as a commercially and recreationally fished species. In addition to the shark programme being a wonderful complement to Ocean Connectors’ existing curricula, this project provides a platform from which to educate young minds on two very important concepts: firstly, that sharks are much more than the bad reputation the media has pinned on them and that they in fact serve crucial ecosystem roles; and secondly that overfishing means that we have ‘fished down the food chain’, removing large apex predators like sharks.

For the pilot year of our shark programme, our goal is to provide presentations to 250 seventh grade students, which will take place in early 2017. To measure our impact on building their knowledge of shark conservation and science, students will respond to a 10-question pre- and post-programme survey. Our hope is that it will yield a target of 30% improvement in knowledge. Educators will rate the programme on a scale of one to 10 and provide anonymous feedback on how Ocean Connectors contributed to their teaching goals, student engagement, and scientific knowledge in the classroom.

Through this project we have been fortunate to make connections with leading shark and ray conservationists and researchers. Inspirational individuals who have contributed to the Ocean Connectors thresher shark programme include Daniel Cartamil, PhD, Sonja Fordham, Laura Jordan, PhD, and Dovi Kacev, PhD.

Stay tuned to the Ocean Connectors Resources page, where soon we will be posting our new thresher shark curriculum!

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