On-the-Water Ocean Environmental Literacy For All

By Dax Ovid|August 12, 2019

Walking down the US Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model Pier, third-grade students from Ford Elementary in Richmond, CA, were chatting with anticipation of boarding the boat on a Friday in mid-April. One student pointed to the water, “Look, it’s the ocean!” Soon, she would be seeing and feeling a raised relief map of California, noticing the many rivers flowing into San Francisco Bay, and wondering exactly how many rivers deluged fresh water into our local estuary and where the bay became the ocean. Another student started off on the boat by sitting down and staying still. “I’m scared,” she said as we pulled away from the dock. “What are you scared of?” I asked. “That an animal is going to jump on the boat.” I shared that I saw dolphins jumping next to the boat, but I’ve never seen an animal jump on the boat. She smiled.

Whether you see the ocean regularly or not, the impact of the ocean on our climate and planet is too profound to ignore in K–12 environmental and outdoor education. Also, our new science standards (CA-NGSS), science framework, and Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs) all support ocean literacy—which is further supported and reinforced by the Ocean and Climate Literacy: Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts, a collaborative effort by scientists and educators from around the world. 

Although over 70% of Earth is ocean, nearly 100% of most humans’ lived experiences are terrestrial. When it comes to designing classroom-based lessons and outdoor learning, land is the most accessible platform for experiential education. It’s easy to overlook ocean environmental literacy, especially for landlocked residents with little to no sea experience. An environmentally literate person is making informed decisions based on “lived experiences, classroom-based lessons, experiential education and outdoor learning.” If students’ experiences and lessons are land-biased, then students are missing the wonders and the mystery of 70% of our planet—largely uninhabited, unexplored, and considered uninhabitable.

While most consider the ocean to be uninhabitable, Lawrence Hall of Science is challenging students to design a city on the water for their summer camp, City Engineers. Imagine design camps informed by direct experience of the bay and ocean.

Teachers frequently share it can be an uphill battle to make on-the-water field experiences happen. One teacher said she had to fight with her district three years ago to take her class for their first on-the-water educational experience. When I asked her why she had to fight, she said there were concerns about safety for on-the-water programs. I can imagine the same concern being raised before about taking students outside the classroom, stalling teachers’ demand for outdoor educational experiences. It’s like the student afraid an animal would jump on the boat. Preoccupations of the risks of being on a boat can only be assuaged through lived experiences of the wonder, joy, and feeling of an ocean breeze.

Beyond concerns for safety, there are also legitimate concerns about access to coastal and on-the-water field experiences. Consider how far (and how long) you have to drive to see the coast and the ocean. UCLA’s 2017 Policy Report “Access for All: A New Generation’s Challenges on the California Coast“ lists cost as the determining factor. If you can’t drive there and back home in a day trip, you’ll have to find a place to spend the night, and coastal hotels do not have a reputation of affordability. The California Coastal Commission has a strategic priority of providing low-cost coastal accommodations, and they list residential outdoor education facilities (like the environmental education nonprofit Call of the Sea) in the 2019 “Explore the Coast Overnight“ report. Given the information and suggestions compiled in these reports, we can start working collectively to support coastal access and routine, on-the-water educational field experiences for all. 

The future of our planet depends on the state of our ocean. Given the untapped potential in educational opportunities provided by the ocean, how can schools and districts take advantage of existing resources to foster ocean environmental literacy for their students? 

  1. Challenge students to ask questions about their local watershed and the one, largely unexplored ocean: connecting all our continents, influencing our climate, and supporting a diversity of life and ecosystems (see the ocean literacy principles and concepts here).
  2. Engage in professional learning opportunities that fulfill California NGSS with coastal and water-based field experiences connected to classroom curriculum (e.g. Monterey Bay Aquarium, NOAA, Project WET).
  3. Foster ocean environmental literacy and stewardship by connecting local actions to global impacts (e.g. NOAA’s restoration projects and the California Coastal Commission’s schoolyard cleanups).
  4. Join communities of educators committed to improving ocean literacy and marine science education (e.g. National Marine Educators Association).
  5. Explore on-the-water programs statewide to observe natural phenomena, track cause and effect, and engage with natural systems and processes in the field (e.g. Call of the Sea hosts classes on large sailing vessels, Treasure Island Sailing Center has small sailboats, SeaTrek has kayaks in San Francisco Bay as does Los Angeles Maritime Institute in San Pedro Bay, and California State University, Northridge Aquatic Center at Castaic Lake leads a group of CSU boating centers in ocean environmental literacy). If your school or district has limited funding for field experiences, ask about scholarships and other aids.

The ocean is immense and so are the learning opportunities. We see from student evaluations how on-the-water natural phenomena inspire wonder, awe, and further questioning. Reach out to an organization providing on-the-water field experiences and dive into the possibilities for your class, your district, and our future environmental stewards for both land and sea.

The first step is equitable access to coastal and on-the-water field experiences. The next step, in conjunction with the first, must facilitate inclusive and culturally-relevant pedagogical practices for science, engineering, and environmental education for all.

Tips for Bringing Students On the Water

Being on a boat and being outside in general carry different kinds of risks than being in a classroom. If you are interested in exploring on-the-water field experiences to support ocean environmental literacy, there are resources available to show concerned stakeholders the safety and value of learning on a vessel operated by a crew. 

  1. Safety aboard a vessel is the top priority of people earning and renewing maritime licenses, which may be shown upon request.
  2. Vessels that are approved for passengers by the US Coast Guard go through rigorous inspections, so if your school or district has a concern for safety, feel welcome to ask for and share a vessel’s Certificate of Inspection (COI).
  3. Crew go through pre-employment and randomized drug tests and regimented training, and there are documents showing this as well.
  4. Some people argue that students have to know how to swim to be safely on a vessel; however, boats were made to carry people so they didn’t have to swim. Lifejackets are required and are checked before students board, and the US Coast Guard also checks lifejackets to ensure they are up to current safety standards.
  5. The crew regularly do “man overboard” drills to ensure safe recovery in case of emergency and keep a log of these drills.

Call of the Sea has kept all students safely aboard since its inception in 1982. Feel welcome to ask your on-the-water service provider about potential risks and ways the organization and schools mitigate those risks to support a safe, on-the-water, ocean environmental literacy field experience. 

A special thank you to Capt. Kurt Holland, Capt. Stephen Taylor, and Matt Grigorieff for feedback on this article.

Dax Ovid
This article was written by Dax Ovid

Dax Ovid, PhD is the director of education at Call of the Sea, an educational nonprofit providing on-the-water environmental education and field experiences in the Bay Area and beyond. Her mission-driven work focuses on creating STEM education programs that are inclusive for students from diverse backgrounds and applying scientific research for social change. She is the lead for developing programs for Bay Area youth to experience on-the-water environmental education under sail. Her approach includes working with key stakeholders and benefactors to co-create culturally relevant curriculum to foster ocean environmental literacy. Her background includes nonprofit program management, grant writing, curriculum development, course instruction, workshop facilitation, and academic research in the biological sciences. She received her PhD in integrative biology from UC Berkeley.

If you would like to tour a tall ship, observe an educational sail on the Bay, and co-create the future of on-the-water environmental education, feel welcome to message dax@callofthesea.org.