Home Environment Environmental Stewardship: Ocean Guardian Schools Impact Communities

Environmental Stewardship: Ocean Guardian Schools Impact Communities

Ocean Guardian Schools impact communities.

Editorial by Selene Muldowney;
Photos Courtesy NOAA’s Ocean Guardian Schools

Our family spent many nights camping, days hiking, and hours wading through half cleared forest trails and waterways as we explored the beautiful wilderness we were surrounded by. We have been fortunate to have lived in a state replete with green conifers and surrounded by water. In many cases our explorations were part of my son’s scouting adventures where he learned to work with others cooperatively, build fires, hide food from bears, avoid getting lost, using a compass, learning what berries and other natural edible plants grow in forests, and so much more; but what he learned most is to be a steward of the environment.

Leave No Trace camping has become an increasing popular term, although not a new concept to organizations like the scouts. As the term suggests, the goal is to leave as little impact as possible on the natural environs visited. One of the scout mottos is “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” The fundamental rule is: pack it in, pack it out, but it goes beyond that. The principles of “Leave No Trace” were developed in response to concerns about the increasing number of human visitors to previously uninhabited wilderness areas. Many folks would argue their one forgotten straw couldn’t possibly affect the entire ecosystem; but the cumulative effect of thousands of straws or perhaps millions can and will be profound. Short of removing humanity from nature, we can make changes that over time will make a positive impact on the environment and more specifically the ocean.

The concept of environmental stewardship, a term championed by Aldo Leopold, considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system, is explained as “dealing with [human’s] relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” Leopold coined the term “land ethic” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature. Today the term “environmental stewardship” has come to encompass the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practice while recognizing humans are part of the complex natural system on earth.

Responding to the need for environmental stewardship particularly in youth, Seaberry Nachbar, Ocean Guardian School Program Director, created, implemented, and developed the Ocean Guardian School as part of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries education programs. The idea was born in 2009 when Nachbar and other NOAA educators where trying to figure out the best way to connect students to the ocean through a hands on approach.

“During the development of this program we heard about the Reef Guardian School Program in Australia. We had a chance to visit and observe their interactions and how they were able to get the kids involved early with environmental awareness and stewardship. The program works with the schools helping them develop projects to protect the Great Barrier Reef,” stated Nachbar.

Bringing this idea back to NOAA and ultimately creating focus groups with school leaders and teachers, Nachbar and the team realized schools, while eager to participate, would not have the resources to support such a program without both financial support and infrastructure.

The mission of the Ocean Guardian School program is to work within school communities to protect and conserve local watersheds, the ocean, and special ocean areas like national marine sanctuaries. This connection is formed when students plan, develop, and implement stewardship projects on their school grounds or neighborhoods.

After having developed their long term goals and implementing the program, Nachbar continues, “We wanted to create a situation where the schools could participate so we began to provide small grants of up to $4000 for each school to conduct community or school based projects that focus on stewardship.”

Schools must designate one of five ocean and climate literacy “project pathways” that connect to their Ocean Guardian School project:

1) Restoration – watershed/wetland restoration, fish habitat creation, shoreline/bank stabilization;

2) Refuse/Reduce/Reuse/Recycle/ Rot school-wide recycling/ composting programs, redesign and implementation of school- based water system, school-wide green purchasing program, zero waste lunch program;

3) Marine Debris – reducing single- use plastics in school, promoting reusable bags in local community/ stores, beach, or neighborhood clean-ups;

4) Schoolyard Habitats/Gardens – creating or improving school gardens/schoolyard habitats with an emphasis on the native plants, low water use, rain catchment systems, etc. while clearly connecting these activities to the health and preservation of the local watershed and/or ocean;

5) Energy and Ocean Health – school energy audits/carbon footprint calculations resulting in energy saving plans (i.e., “power down” campaign, bike to school days, light bulb/computer energy saving plans, etc.), clean energy alternatives such as wind/solar project, water saving projects, tree planting projects.

Since 2010, the Ocean Guardian School program has worked with more than 100 schools and 50,000 students. Through evaluation the program has shown students 1) become active stewards of their environment by directly reducing threats to the natural resources, and 2) students are more inclined to talk to others about the environment.

“The program began in California in 2009 but has since expanded to include Oregon, Washington, Florida, Texas, and Maryland, and most recently North Carolina. This program has also supported a few schools in Colorado, Hawaii and New York.” says Nachbar. “We find the more sustainable projects are in areas supported by local NOAA sanctuaries that help the schools establish their goals. Existing sanctuary staff help set up the programs with the schools which ultimately leans toward their success.”

It is important to note any school can participate as an unfunded school.

The Ocean Guardian School program program prides itself on its extensive and systematic evaluation that takes place at the program level and with eachoftheindividualschoolprojects. Over the course of the program’s life, a number of assessments have been conducted to collect both outcomes and outputs. In addition, success stories and highlights from each of the schools provide qualitative information about the program success.

Starting in 2010, the Ocean Guardian School program has required that each school collect measurable data during the project pertaining to the stewardship activities they are conducting. Some of the accomplishments to date include: more than 171,108 square feet of invasive plants removed; 108,857 plastic water bottles eliminated from the environment; and 323,133 pounds of trash removed from neighborhoods and beaches (that equates to 20,357 garbage trucks).

Nachbar explains “We collect quantifiable and measurable data from the participating schools to help demonstrate our program impact. We recently conducted a study of the program to determine the dollar value of these stewardship projects. One example shows that since 2010, Ocean Guardian Schools have planted more than 117,152 square feet of native plants, which contributes $326,458 to local economies!”

This suggests that a small investment can result in large impacts that “guard” our ocean, protect our resources, and change student behaviors.

Keeping the environment healthy for future generations depends on everyone’s participation. Schools can take on the vital role as leaders in supporting the students and staff in both understanding the impacts of environmental matters, such as climate change, as well as encourage them to better understand their role in creating a sustainable planet. It is encouraging to see the level of participation by the schools and how readily the program was welcomed into the school districts. By learning about environmental issues and deciding how to take positive action, the students can become stewards of the environment, as well as leaders within their schools and communities. Their participation not only decreases the impact that schools have on the environment, as well as the impact on their homes and personal lives, but also provides opportunities for students to apply their environmental learning in the real world and preparing them to become active and engaged citizens.

Current measurable data from 2010 to 2018 – by the numbers: 146,570 kg of trash/debris removed from campus and/or from out in the community 497,788 single use plastic bottles NOT used due to use of reusable bottles at filtration station 33,948.21 square meters of non- native invasive plants removed 47,945.89 square meters of native plants planted 10,614 reusable bags distributed 17,679 reusable bottles distributed 1,427 recycle and compost bins installed.

For more information and interviews, please contact Seaberry Nachbar, NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program Director, who is also copied on this email. She can discuss the program and connect you with school representatives. Seaberry can be reached at 831-647-4204 and seaberry.nachbar@noaa.gov .

What are Teachers saying about the program:

“Watching the students round the final bend at the Harbor Mouth and come into view of their restoration plot was a powerful experience. They were exuberant and full of excitement about the changes they saw before them. What was a barren and degraded sand dune only months before had transformed into a functional ecosystem with flowering plants and pollinators whizzing about. Also, the positive feedback and excitement expressed by community residents and coastal visitors for the transformation the students are making in their environment was validating of this work.”

Gault Elementary School, Santa Cruz, CA

“Students became extremely knowledgeable and effective communicators about the benefits of native plants. Students motivated over 30 families to purchase and grow native plants at home.”

Kenwood Elementary School, Kenwood, CA

“Students became acutely aware of the significance of a healthy planet and their role in making it so. They felt empowered!”

Joaquin Miller Elementary School, Oakland, CA

“Through this project, we are literally changing the lifestyle and culture of our school community. Since first introducing ocean guardianship to our students, teachers have had 100’s of parents reaching out and telling them of their children’s passion and motivation to reduce single use plastics. Recently a parent relayed that their 5th grader gave metal straws out as birthday party favors to guests. Our students are taking this mission very seriously.”

Amelia Earhart, Alameda, CA