Students in the Ocean Science Explorers program examine rocks at Torrey Pines State Beach.

Next Generation of Ocean Science Explorers Fostered by Scripps/Ocean Discovery Program

Local school-based program brings hands-on ocean science education to underserved students in San Diego

The wonders of the ocean have fascinated people for centuries. Beyond its captivating sea creatures, rolling waves, and treasures undiscovered, the ocean provides a perfect and readily accessible platform for students to learn about science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM).

Budget cuts, cramped classrooms, and lack of funding for schools in underserved communities can prevent bright young students from receiving top-notch educations in STEM. With these hurdles in mind, Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have teamed up to develop a sixth-grade curriculum as part of Ocean Science Explorers, a school-based initiative that engages, educates, and inspires young people through hands-on ocean science exploration.

The current collaboration between Scripps and Ocean Discovery evolved in 2013 when a group of biological oceanographers at Scripps received funding from the California Sea Grant Core Research program to study how coastal resources and fisheries respond to ocean deoxygenation and acidification.

Lisa Levin, professor and director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps, led the Scripps research team, which included associate researcher Ed Parnell, assistant professor Todd Martz, and graduate student Mike Navarro.

It’s easy to see why the Scripps team thought about partnering with Ocean Discovery for the outreach and education component of their research grant. “I admired Ocean Discovery’s ability to use ocean sciences as a way to empower San Diego students who otherwise would not have access to top-notch science education programs,” said Navarro, a Ph.D. graduate student of the Integrative Oceanography Division at Scripps.

Executive Director Shara Fisler founded Ocean Discovery in 1999, and over the past 15 years the organization has blossomed, transforming thousands of young lives through science education. Ocean Discovery received national recognition in 2012, when Fisler and her organization received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring from President Barack Obama.

After reaching out to members of Ocean Discovery, the Scripps team felt confident that the two organizations would be well matched for student outreach—particularly through Ocean Discovery’s Ocean Science Explorers program, a school-based initiative that provides four consecutive years of hands-on science education to students from grades three to six.

Originally implemented in five classrooms, the Ocean Science Explorers program now serves 13 of the 14 public schools in City Heights, a diverse and low-income neighborhood in eastern San Diego. Last year alone, the program reached 3,200 underserved students and provided professional development and science supplies to 115 teachers.

“As our world is changing, it is quite obvious that we will need world-class scientists from all socio-economic sectors, especially those sectors that will be hit hardest—the poor,” said Navarro. “Programs like Ocean Discovery will help make sure that talented youngsters get that opportunity even if they are from areas traditionally without strong science-education resources.” 

Rochelle Mothokakobo, school-based initiatives manager at Ocean Discovery, worked closely with the Scripps researchers to create sixth-grade curricula that introduces cutting-edge research on climate change and ocean acidification, while also meeting national and California state science standards. The resulting curricular unit, titled “Change Over Time,” also covers earthquakes and plate tectonics, paleontology and stratigraphy, and ice-core research.

Throughout the school year, Ocean Discovery instructors meet with each classroom a total of six times. This includes four in-class, hands-on science lessons, an outdoor field experience to reinforce concepts taught in the classroom, and a locally-based environmental service project that empowers students to make a difference in their community.

The sixth-grade students in Ted Behra’s class at Wilson Middle School represent just one of the many classrooms in City Heights that benefitted from the Scripps/Ocean Discovery collaboration this past school year. On a particularly hot day in May, these students received their fourth and final in-class lesson from Scripps alum Joel Barkan, school programs coordinator at Ocean Discovery.

“The kids love Joel!” said Behra, a lively science teacher who has worked with Ocean Discovery for the past five years. Behra is already a seasoned educational professional, but he enjoys the opportunity to work with the specialists from Ocean Discovery. “Having real scientists in the classroom, it’s a real gift for our kids—like a gift from heaven!”

Behra explained that some of his young students have already been to juvenile detention centers, some come from foster care or troubled homes, and many have behavioral problems. Despite these circumstances, many of Behra’s students are thriving in the program, which keeps them engaged and active.

“This is the turning point where they can really try to focus on college,” said Behra. “They are really benefitting from getting out of regular ‘book lessons’ and experiencing in-person, live experiments.”

Two middle school students work on a science project
Sixth-grade students conduct an experiment on algae to study the effects of ocean acidification. This activity is part of a lesson plan that was developed by Scripps Oceanography and Ocean Discovery as part of the Ocean Science Explorers program.

Despite the sweltering heat and lack of air-conditioning in the classroom, Behra’s students were attentive and eager to start the day’s science experiment. The daily lesson focused on ocean acidification and students worked in groups to compare the effects of today’s seawater vs. acidic seawater on algae. They soaked pieces of algae in different water samples, measured the before and after weights of the algae, and ultimately came to a conclusion: the acidic water had dissolved some of the algae, decreasing its overall weight.

“It’s better than learning it out of a book!” said Taliyah, age 11, as she recorded algae data in her notebook.

This live demonstration brought home the harmful effects of ocean acidification on valuable coral reefs, a problem greatly related to global climate change and the amount of human-induced CO2 in the atmosphere. “Even a small change can have an effect on living things,” explained Jalyn, 11.

Two weeks later, Behra’s sixth-grade class participated in a beach walk at Torrey Pines, where naturalists from Birch Aquarium at Scripps and instructors from Ocean Discovery guided the students on a series of educational activities. The students, many of whom had never been to the beach before, had a blast digging their hands into the sand, examining rocks and shells, and determining the ages of the cliff formations around them.

Later that day, the students visited Birch Aquarium, where they participated in a series of interactive workstations. One station taught students how to calculate their carbon footprint and also showed them measures they could take to reduce their personal CO2 output.

“You'd be amazed at how many students go above and beyond themselves, not only lowering their footprint but also getting their families to reduce their carbon footprint with very creative methods,” said Navarro, clearly impressed by the students. “Heck, some of them inspired me to do more!”  

During another discussion on CO2, students learned how to determine which resources act as carbon “sources” and which act as carbon “sinks.”

“It helps us to live, but it also causes global warming,” said Erick, 12, as he pondered CO2. He later made a personal pledge to ride his bike more often (instead of riding in a car), and to turn off the lights when he leaves a room. “I want to do more to help the environment.”

“Ooohs” and “aaahs” could be heard as students made their way through the seahorse exhibit. Seeing the beautiful creatures up-close was another first for many students. Soon after, a Birch Aquarium naturalist showed the budding explorers different types of coral, including some affected by ocean acidification. Touching the coral made the in-class lessons all the more real for Jacky, 13. “I’ve learned so much about coral I never knew before,” she said.

Lastly, the students listened to a presentation to learn more about careers and opportunities available in science. One presenter was from CleanTECH San Diego, a nonprofit organization that works to accelerate clean technology innovation and adoption of sustainable business practices for the benefit of the economy and the environment.

"Careers in STEM aren’t only for scientists; they can also include the job of telling stories about science,” said Shannon Casey, communications director for CleanTECH San Diego. "As a marketer, my job is to share science through social media, writing, and other forms of communication.”

Following the presentation, which included an engaging Q&A session, the students explored the aquarium’s Boundless Energy exhibit—quite fitting since they had just learned about clean technology.

“All of the renewable energy and climate change lessons they had been learning really came to life out there,” said Casey. “I hope the experience has inspired these students to consider careers that help our planet.”

Through programs such as Ocean Science Explorers, students are given the necessary tools for better understanding and protecting the planet. On average, students achieve a 47 percent increase on objective science tests after participating in the program. This gives Navarro and his colleagues hope for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders.

“We want the next generation to be prepared and confident with their ability to meet the challenges that will occur with climate change,” said Navarro. “We hope that some of them will even delve deeper and go on to college to continue to pursue science. With such amazing scientists here at Scripps, the sky is the limit.”

Related Image Gallery: Ocean Science Explorers Program

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

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