Shara is the founder and Executive Director of the Ocean Discovery Institute, which provides tuition-free education for urban youth with a focus on science, the ocean and nature. The institute, (previously called Aquatic Adventures) helps to connect youth to science and inspires envrironmental action and the pursuit of further education through experiential learning opportunities. This includes both clasroom and living laboratories, intensive after school and summer programs and habitat-based community restoration events. Although she was born in landlocked Phoenix, AZ, she has spent the majority of her life working with the ocean. Shara holds a B.S. in Environmental Science from U.C. Santa Barbara and an M.A. in Marine Resource Management from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. Before she started Aquatic Adventures, she also taught marine science and evolutionary biology for 9 years at the University of San Diego. Shara has recieved numerous awards for her involvement with Aquatic Adventures, including the Channel 10 Leadership Award (2000), Earth Organization of the year (2003), San Diego Park and Recreation's Volunteer Organization of the Year (2003), the United Domestic Workers of America Community Leadership Award (2004), The San Diego County Clean Water Award (2004), The San Diego River Park Foundation Education Award (2004) and the National SeaWorld, Bush Gardens and Fuji Film Environmental Excellence Award (2005, 2008). Aquatic Adventures was also featured on the Today Show in 2007.
Baja Bound caught up with Shara in July of 2008 for a quick interview...
BB: How did the Ocean Discovery Institute come about?
SF: The Ocean Discovery Institute first began as a summer camp called Aquatic Adventures Science Education Foundation when we initially received our non-profit status. I founded the organization for several reasons. Initially, I was teaching part time at USD in marine science and biology and wanted to provide science opportunties for younger students. Soon after the summer camp began, I realized that the students who were most in need of these types of opportunities were often unable to afford them. That is when it became a non-profit and we expanded our programs. It was very difficult in the beginning as I had no background in non-profit management, but over time, supporters and an incredibly dedicated staff developed and allowed the organization to grow dramatically. We now serve about 5,000 students a year through our tuition-free programs. We provide classroom and field-based science programming in partnership with low-income schools, after-school intensive programming that is provided to students as they enter sixth grade all the way through college, and community-based habitat restoration events.
BB: What is the BAHIA program?
SF: BAHíA is an after-school and summer program that provides low-income, urban San Diego high school students with experiential education, field research opportunities, and a series of academic and personal supports. BAHíA brings these students to Bahía de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, where they make meaningful contributions to science and conservation, working alongside local scientists, fishermen and youth leaders. Each year approximately 20 students are selected to participate for their strengths and areas of needed development. The students participate in an extensive preparation (through which they learn marine science principles, lab and field techniques, and how to swim and snorkel) that enables them to conduct authentic research. Following preparation they spend five weeks living and working at the Vermillion Sea Field Station directly on the Gulf of California. They dedictate their time to one of three scientific studies (understand wetland biodiversity in the region, habitat connectivity between land and sea, and investigating methods to reduce the incidental capture of sea turtles). They then return to San Diego where they present their research findings and experiences to a variety of audiences. The students do not end their participation at that point, but rather continue to participate in programming and receive supports that enable them to move forward as future scientific and conservation leaders. From our data over the past five years, 82% of our students go on to 4 year universities and of those that have declared a major, 82% have done so in science or conservation fields.
BB: The experiences the children have through the Ocean Discovery Institute are undoubtedly life changing. What kind of impact do the programs have on the kids?
SF: We know that the students increase their science knowledge, their ability to view themselves in a science or conservation career, improve their understanding of college and the likelihood of attendance. We measure for all of these changes and more.
BB: What are the biggest challenges that you face in your day to day work?
SF: Unfortunately with as many supporters as we have been lucky to have, it is still very difficult to obtain the resources neccessary to sustain the programming. So basically we all work about 60-80 hours per week! So our workload is the biggest challenge :) Luckily the work is amazing and inspiring to keep everyone moving forward!
BB: What is next for the Ocean Discovery Institute? Are there any new programs being developed?
We are continually strenghtening and expanding our programs. Currently we are increasing our focus in the community of City Heights and expanding the number of schools that we work with there. Our goal is to provide programs in every school in the community by 2012! :)