San Diego, CA, July 30, 2019 – Ocean Connectors, a fiscally-sponsored project of The Ocean Foundation, has been working since 2007 to engage thousands of children in communities of San Diego County as well as parts of Mexico to inspire environmental education and marine conservation. Many economically disadvantaged communities lack access to parks, safe outdoor recreation, and open space, often resulting in an absence of environmental awareness and understanding.  This led to the creation of Ocean Connectors, with a vision to connect youth for conservation by using migratory marine life to inspire and engage underserved populations living in Pacific coastal communities. 

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In a unique partnership between Ocean Connectors and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, local groups focus on ways to engage urban youth in a diverse array of marine field trips and educational seminars. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through its Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, believes in an “approach that empowers local organizations, cities, and towns across the country to seek innovative community-based solutions for wildlife conservation.”

The student audience for this project is comprised of 85% Latino students. Only 15% of Latinos over age 25 hold a four-year degree in the U.S., and less than 10% of Bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering are awarded to Latino students. The community of National City, where Ocean Connectors is based, is in the top 10% of zip-codes statewide for combined impacts of pollution and population vulnerabilities. These concerns could be linked to the historic lack of environmental education and access to parks and open space in National City. Through this program, Ocean Connectors will provide environmental education geared at achieving lasting, long-term impacts for low-income schoolchildren and families, helping them to access, engage with, and understand their natural environment. 

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The program has received positive feedback from participants, as one of the local teachers remarked, “This is an amazing program. Our school’s staff were very impressed with the organization of the field trip and the presentations that were provided. We definitely look forward towards working with the program next year!”

Ocean Connectors class presentations are provided two times each school year. During the classroom visits, Ocean Connectors conducts a “knowledge exchange” consisting of bilingual scientific communications between students in National City and children living at the end of the Pacific Flyway. This distance learning technique creates a peer-to-peer dialogue that promotes shared stewardship of migratory wildlife.

According to Ocean Connectors Executive Director, Frances Kinney, “Our partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been instrumental in helping Ocean Connectors to grow, add new members to our team, and ultimately to educate more and more local schoolchildren using Urban Refuges as an outdoor classroom for teaching about environmental science and conservation. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff serve as role models that provide students with firsthand exposure to outdoor career pathways.”

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Following the classroom presentations, approximately 750 sixth grade students conduct habitat restoration over two acres at the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, including litter removal, clearing invasive plant cover, and installing native plants. To date, the students have planted over 5,000 native plants in this area. They also visit various educational stations to use microscopes and binoculars to put real-world scientific skills into practice. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Urban Wildlife Conservation Program focuses on a legacy of conservation by deploying an innovative community-centered model to better understand how local communities are being affected and what they can do about it. The program focuses in and near cities where 80% of Americans live and work. 

Working with partners like Ocean Connectors, they are able to provide opportunities for the communities surrounding National Wildlife Refuges.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Urban Refuge Coordinator, Chantel Jimenez, commented on the local meaning of the program, saying, “Our partners provide the spark and access for communities, neighborhoods, schools and families to be welcomed to the National Wildlife Refuge System.  Ocean Connectors opens doors for the students in National City to connect to nature and be inspired to be future stewards of the land.”

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Last year, Ocean Connectors provided 238 classroom presentations for a total of 4,677 students, and conducted 90 field trips throughout the United States and Mexico for over 2,000 participants.  All of these were record highs for Ocean Connectors, who is looking to build upon that momentum this year. 
Through this partnership, Ocean Connectors utilizes a multiyear educational approach to build a foundation of environmental awareness, and leverages the expertise of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to teach students about native flora and fauna, environmental stewardship, and San Diego Bay ecosystems. Ocean Connectors curricula align with the Urban Wildlife Refuge Standards of Excellence, Common Core, Ocean Literacy Principles, and Next Generation Science Standards. 

Photo Credit: Anna Mar