Monday, January 9, 2017

Engaging Youth in Marine Science: An Update from Ellen Spooner

After a grueling week of sitting through 52 presentations back to back, doing 13 interviews across the city, and hours of self-marketing at evening “Happy hours” — otherwise known as Placement Week for Knauss fellows — I got the education/communications position shared between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Office of Communications and the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s Ocean education team.

This was very exciting to me, as it provided the unique opportunity to see how two very well-established and impactful institutions work toward the protection of our ocean and inform the public about that protection. Both institutions carry out marine research and share that science with the public, but they use different methods for doing so.

The Smithsonian Natural History Museum is the single most visited museum in the United States and is one of the top 30 places visited in the world with 7 million visitors a year. In addition, it has the largest collection of marine fish and whales in the world.

NOAA Fisheries is largely responsible for the management and protection of all fish, mammals, and sea turtles that live or come into U.S. waters. The United States has the largest exclusive economic zone or special rights over the largest area of ocean in the world. Hence, NOAA Fisheries is responsible for a large part of life in the ocean and is a world leader in doing so. Therefore, these institutions have a large influence around the world and have been excellent places for me to learn from the best.

In this unique position, I bring the vast wealth of ocean knowledge from NOAA to the millions of visitors at the Smithsonian. I do this using a variety of methods which include bringing NOAA scientists into the museum to talk with our visitors, or helping update exhibits at the museum by providing the latest information and research on marine organisms from NOAA. Through this work, I have had the opportunity to learn how to strategically communicate with Congress, the press, and the public on scientific and sometimes controversial topics and how to engage museum visitors with science in a fun and interactive way.

Yet, one of the most important audiences I have worked with in this position is students from underserved communities. I had several very rewarding experiences working with a variety of students whose interest and excitement about the ocean astounded even me.

One of my first experiences was with NOAA Enrichment in Marine Sciences and Oceanography (NEMO) program, where local Washington, D.C. high school and middle school students work with marine science experts to learn about the ocean and do various marine science activities after school. I was thrilled to find out that one of the schools that participates in this program was in my own neighborhood, so I jumped on the opportunity to get involved. It is so easy to get caught up in your own life but it is so important to give back to the community you live in and here was my chance. There were about 20 middle school students in this classroom, and the moment we brought out the preserved squids for a lesson on physiology, there was excitement, fear, and intrigue. We eased the students into handling the squid by teaching them about the outside features first, and once we cut inside, they were all excited about it.

Squid dissection at Mckinley Middle School.

There was just as much excitement when I brought my dear friend and extremely motivated shark biologist, Symone Johnson, into the Natural History Museum to speak with our visitors about the work she has done researching sharks. She brought a real shark jaw and had photos of her work for students and visitors to look at. During this program, a large group of children ran over to her and all wanted to touch the shark teeth. They had never seen someone who looked like them do that before (meaning marine biology). We're excited to get involved.

Symone Johnson holding a real shark jaw for a group of students.

Not only did I get to work with students in Washington D.C., but I also had the opportunity to travel down to Louisiana with the Gear Up program. Smithsonian is a partner in this program, which prepares low-income students for college and a future career. For this program, I developed a lesson on ocean currents that shows how the ocean regulates our climate.

After I taught one of the classes, a student asked me, “Are you a Marine Biologist?” I answered, “I guess you could say that.” Then, she asked if it was hard to become one. I responded “I'm not going to lie, there were some times in school that were really difficult for me, but I always found the help I needed to work through it, either by going to my teachers’ office hours, getting help from my classmates, going to tutoring, or reading the book. So even though there are difficult parts of school, there is always someone or something that can help you out. You just have to find it.” She then responded by saying she might want to do that, be a Marine Biologist. This was one of the most rewarding moments of my career. When working with students, you know not every student is going to find what you teach them interesting, but that's not the goal. The goal is to expose them to as much as possible so they can know what their choices are and figure out what they like from there. I was able to help one student find her interest.

Students participating in the Gear Up program in Louisiana.

I could not have had these amazing experiences and this fellowship without the help of so many people along the way, and I want to be that person for others. I want to provide that opportunity to as many students as I can. So I want to thank all those who have supported me along the way: from those who helped me in undergrad through those horrible chemistry exams, to those in graduate school who enlightened me to all the issues of the world, and to those during this fellowship who have helped me grow as a professional and have shown me how it's done best.