Bring­ing stu­dents right to the water’s edge

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Lisa Wirth­man

Breathe in. Breathe out. Do it once again. Now think about the fact that two of ev­ery three breaths we take are of oxy­gen pro­duced by oceans.

This sim­ple ex­er­cise is just one way Boul­der-based Ocean First is help­ing land­locked Colorado stu­dents learn about — and con­nect to — the earth’s marine ecosys­tems.

“The sea sup­ports all life on the planet. It pro­vides the oxy­gen we breathe and ab­sorbs a lot of the car­bon diox­ide that we put in the at­mos­phere,” said Ocean First Founder and Chief Vi­sion­ary Of­fi­cer Gra­ham Cas­den. “Yet, we’ve done very lit­tle to care for it.”

An avid scuba diver, Cas­den launched Ocean First in 2007 with a mis­sion to ed­u­cate the div­ing com­mu­nity about ocean con­ser­va­tion. In the decade that fol­lowed, he ex­panded Ocean First’s swim classes, dive in­struc­tion and ocean travel ad­ven­tures to in­clude marine sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion for K-12 stu­dents.

Today, Cas­den’s aim is to merge tech­nol­ogy and ed­u­ca­tion to help stu­dents around the globe con­nect to the sea, no mat­ter where they live. In 2010, he spun off Ocean First Ed­u­ca­tion, to teach dig­i­tal marine sci­ence to K-12 stu­dents, start­ing at the high school level.

Ocean First is now part­ner­ing with Colorado Dig­i­tal Learn­ing So­lu­tions to pro­vide an on­line se­mes­ter-long Marine Sci­ence 101 course that will be of­fered to schools statewide in Jan­uary 2017.

The com­pany also cre­ates vir­tual field trips filmed in 360-de­gree video to trans­port kids from Colorado class­rooms to un­der­wa­ter ecosys­tems thou­sands of miles away. “We can show them a school of sharks swim­ming right at them, or they can turn their heads and see a sea tur­tle swim­ming by,” Cas­den said.

Re­cently, Cas­den filmed a 360de­gree video in the Raja Am­pat Is­lands in In­done­sia, where he was in­vited to doc­u­ment the seizure of an il­le­gal fish­ing boat in a pro­tected marine area pa­trolled by Rangers.

Cas­den filmed the event both top­side and un­der­wa­ter, as the boat pulled up large gill nets filled with un­in­tended by­catch — dead tur­tles, sharks and rays — as well as sharks that were still alive. “It was gut-wrench­ing,” Cas­den said.

But the need­less waste is also

an is­sue that stu­dents can help solve, he said, by choos­ing restau­rants that sup­port sus­tain­able fish­ing meth­ods.

Ocean First Ed­u­ca­tion is part­ner­ing with both Dis­cov­ery Ed­u­ca­tion and Google Ex­pe­di­tions to pro­vide other 360 de­gree videos, along with sup­port­ing teach­ing ma­te­ri­als, for their ed­u­ca­tion chan­nels.

“I re­ally see this com­pany as be­ing at the cross­roads of tech­nol­ogy and ed­u­ca­tion,” Cas­den said. “We want to be at the fore­front of that move­ment.”

At all age lev­els, Ocean First’s cur­ric­ula en­ables teach­ers to cover core sci­ence re­quire­ments, such as learn­ing about ecosys­tems, within the con­text of the marine realm. While the on­line videos are es­pe­cially suited to older stu­dents, younger learn­ers ben­e­fit from hands-on learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, too.

To serve that need, Cas­den launched a third or­ga­ni­za­tion, The Ocean First In­sti­tute, in 2014. The non­profit fo­cuses on in-school pro­gram­ming for el­e­men­tary-aged stu­dents — like the 145 fifth-graders at The Academy in West­min­ster.

On a snowy day in early De­cem­ber, teams of Academy stu­dents leaned over plastic bins, pick­ing through the fi­brous mulch of an Al­ba­tross bo­lus with long tweez­ers. Sim­i­lar to an owl pel­let, a bo­lus is the undi­gested ma­te­rial that the se­abird re­gur­gi­tates dur­ing its reg­u­lar feed­ing process.

Ear­lier in the year, the stu­dents went on a field trip to ob­serve lo­cal Colorado ecosys­tems, said 5th grade teacher Paige Marrs. They did an eco-scav­enger hunt in a prairie ecosys­tem, while tak­ing note of the nearby moun­tains.

And they dis­cov­ered how lit­ter like plastic straws and soda bot­tles can travel down Colorado streams to reach the Pa­cific Ocean. “They learned how all ecosys­tems are con­nected, and how hu­mans can have an im­pact,” Marrs said.

Now, back in the class­room, the fifth graders were learn­ing first­hand where that plastic trash can end up. The bo­lus dis­sec­tions were part of a day­long marine sci­ence pro­gram taught by Ocean First In­sti­tute at the Academy.

Each team’s bo­lus was col­lected from the Mid­way Atoll Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, a nest­ing site for seabirds at the far North­ern end of the Hawai­ian Is­lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice pro­vides the bo­luses to schools upon re­quest.

As the stu­dents dis­sect the bo­luses, they took note of the earthy smell; one stu­dent com­pares it to chili pow­der. They found small rocks, twigs, and black squid beaks too hard to be di­gested that are all part of an al­ba­tross’ nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

But they also found small pieces of col­ored plastic, a washrag, a blue rub­ber band, coiled fish­ing line, sty­ro­foam and even a bit of car­pet. One stu­dent noted that “Even if you lit­ter in Colorado, it can af­fect marine life.”

The fifth graders dis­cussed so­lu­tions, such as avoid­ing plastic straws. Some 500 mil­lion straws are used in the U.S. ev­ery day, ac­cord­ing to non­profit Eco-Cy­cle — enough to fill more than 46,000 large school buses each year.

In an­other room at Academy, Colorado na­tive Mikki McComb-Kobza, who heads the Ocean First In­sti­tute, was shar­ing de­tails of her re­cent dive with great white sharks near Guadalupe Is­land in the Pa­cific Ocean, off the coast of Mex­ico.

MComb-Kobza also did a live broad­cast of her caged shark dive for schools in Long­mont — and around the world. “We re­ally do fuse the re­search that we do with the outreach we do,” she says.

The In­sti­tute teaches sim­i­lar class­room pro­grams in about 10 schools in Den­ver, Boul­der and Long­mont. McComb-Kobza’s goal is to win grant fund­ing for ad­di­tional pro­grams in un­der­served schools through­out Colorado.

For Academy teacher Marrs, the fo­cus on great white sharks also pro­vided a great link to her stu­dents’ ear­lier study of whales. Both whales and sharks have swim­ming pat­terns that drive plank­ton to the ocean’s sur­face, where pho­to­syn­the­sis cre­ates twothirds of the earth’s oxy­gen.

And for the Colorado fifth graders, who stood in a prairie and looked to the neigh­bor­ing moun­tains, it’s sud­denly not so hard to en­vi­sion an ocean on the other side, filled by lo­cal rivers and sus­tain­ing the air we breathe in re­turn.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Mikki McComb-Kobza, of the Ocean First In­sti­tute, teaches fifth-graders at The Academy of Char­ter Schools in West­min­ster about sharks. McComb-Kobza re­cently com­pleted a dive with great white sharks in the Pa­cific Ocean off Mex­ico. Ocean First will of­fer Marine Sci­ence 101 to stu­dents across the state start­ing in Jan­uary.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Mikki McComb-Kobza, of the Ocean First In­sti­tute, teaches stu­dents at The Academy of Char­ter Schools in West­min­ster to uses lasers to mea­sure the length of a shark.

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