School program for ‘Ocean Guardians’ seeks to expand in Alaska

Schools in Anchorage and Juneau see students involved in marine conservation efforts

By: - January 30, 2023 5:05 pm
The image shows students working to clean up plastic

Students from Dimond High School pose for a photo while picking up trash. (Photo by Catherine Walker).

Alaska’s coastlines are home to iconic Alaska wildlife, but they’re also besieged by litter and pollution. There’s an effort underway to combat this by teaching students about marine conservation. Scientists and teachers say it’s having success and would like to see it expand. 

In the Ocean Guardian School Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partners with K-12 public, private and charter schools in Alaska and the rest of the country to educate and encourage students to participate in conservation efforts. 

For example, students in the program have engaged in activities ranging from taking field trips to the coast to throwing out trash on both school campuses and beaches. 

Students work together to choose which ocean conservation topics – known as pathways – to focus on.  These pathways are: marine debris, strategies known as “the six r’s” (refuse, rethink, reduce, reuse, rot and recycle), watershed restoration, school habitats and energy and ocean health. Each pathway focuses on one element of ocean conservation, such as reducing waste, and helps students implement more sustainable practices in their schools and community. 

The program was introduced to Alaska in 2018 and had five participating schools in Anchorage and Juneau during the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Kim Raum-Suryan, a marine mammal specialist for NOAA Fisheries and proponent of the guardianship program in Alaska, hopes to see the program expanded in the state in the future. “In Juneau anyway, our goal is to have an Ocean Guardian school district, and that’s kind of like our dream. I guess the big dream would be to have an Alaska Ocean Garden overall school district.”

Coastal areas can offer valuable information about the health and longevity of a marine ecosystem. But they can also be areas that are prone to litter and environmental degradation.

“We’re really big on ocean literacy and trying to especially go into the public … and convey science in a way that is easy to understand and that is inspiring to the kids,” said Michelle Trifari. She has been working with students as a fellow through the Alaska Sea Grant program. Trifari was involved with establishing the program in Alaska high schools through the Sea Grant. 

Raum-Suryan agreed with Trifari: “We work for NOAA, it’s our passion to care about the ocean and the animals that live there. So to us, you know, raising up ocean stewards from little kids so that they start caring at a young age will help make them care more as adults too.”

She went on to say, “I just always tell kids that they are the ones that have the power. This is their future.”

Students smile for a photo while picking up trash on a beach.
Students from Dimond High School pose for a photo while picking up trash. (Photo by Catherine Walker).

Catherine Walker, who is a teacher at Dimond High in Anchorage, shared a similar sentiment in an email.

I believe that Dimond’s participation in the NOAA Ocean Guardian School program has been an outstanding success,” she said.

Walker applied for the school to participate in the 2021-2022 Ocean Guardian School Program. In collaboration with her students, Walker’s conservation-centered education aimed to bridge the connection between human activities and the health of the environment. The students also looked at watersheds in Alaska. 

This fall, Walker’s students took part in a remote beach cleanup in Prince William Sound. 

In addition, students submitted art for a contest to decorate reusable water bottles and recycled plastic t-shirts that students win for helping with trash cleanups and recycling. 

A student organization known as the Dimond Green Effects Recycling club has a membership of more than 60 students, Walker said.

While the Ocean Guardian School Program currently receives federal funding, Walker noted that funding was not required for the programs to continue or for new schools throughout Alaska to participate. Dimond High School’s funding was coordinated by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. The program is also meant to continue on its own even after schools complete their year in the program — with or without financial assistance. Walker emphasized that although the funding does make it easier for schools to participate, it is not necessary for a successful program.

As for success, Walker was very enthusiastic about the work her students accomplished. In addition to education field trips that focused on marine science education, “Students collected about 140 pounds of trash from our campus and identified problems with trash on our school campus and brainstormed solutions,” she said.

Motivated Dimond high students also helped clear trash from Alaska beaches, among other conservation efforts encouraged by the program. 

In September, 22 Dimond students rented a bus and chartered a boat on a cold and rainy day to clean up more than 118 pounds of marine debris from Logging Camp Cove, a remote beach near Whittier, Walker said. Part of the funding for the trip came from a  $350 NOAA ‘Day of Action’ grant celebrating the 50th Anniversary of National Marine Sanctuaries.

As for the program’s long-term success in Anchorage, Walker noted that Dimond joined in 2021 and is the only school participating in the program in Anchorage, “but hopefully, other schools will follow suit.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that there are no national marine sanctuaries in Alaska.


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