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I Know What You Did Last Summer…

Ship to Shore: USC Sea Grant's Summer Science Program for High School Students

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(Photo credit: Linda Chilton)

A fog bank hangs thickly across the water. One cannot see more than few yards beyond the bow of the boat, but the captain knows where they’re going. A pelican emerges through the gray fog for a moment, circles the boat with hardly a flap of his wings, and then disappears again. Twenty fresh faces scan each other and wonder what lies ahead in the fog. And what lay ahead was a week of summer that they would never forget.

For one week each summer, USC Sea Grant hosts twenty high school students from around the country at the USC Phillip K. Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island, located 20 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. For many of these students, this is their first time near, on, and in the ocean. Through this weeklong program, students are introduced to the fields of oceanography, marine biology, and island ecology and the short and long-term effects that humans can have on these delicately balanced ecosystems. Through engagement with USC students, faculty and guest scientists, students learn about what it takes pursue a degree and eventually a career in marine science as well as the vast array of applications for such a line of study, including environmental policy, research science, education, illustration, science writing and diving safety.

After leaving Catalina, these high school students know much more than the average high school student about marine ecosystems and ocean science. One 2013 program graduate, Orly Goldberg, recently told USC Sea Grant, “My AP biology class just did a two day unit on marine ecosystems and the ocean, and my teacher was very impressed with my knowledge about the various topics discussed. She even let me present some of the things I learned in Catalina to my class.”

Students analyze sediments for soil composition and pH. (Photo credit: L. Chilton)

 
 

Like Orly, many of the summer science program graduates now have their sights set on careers in science that they never knew existed. For USC Sea Grant, which prides itself on its effectiveness in steering and supporting the next generation into careers and research in the marine and environmental sciences, this early ambition in marine science is great news.

More importantly, though, all the graduates of the summer science program gain a love and perspective about the ocean that will stay with them forever, regardless of where their educational or career paths may lead. While interviewing past program graduates about their experience on Catalina, USC Sea Grant staff repeatedly hear the same phrases: I now understand how everything on earth is connected to the ocean…I now understand how my actions on land can affect the ocean…without a healthy ocean, life on earth would not be the same…I can’t believe how diverse and beautiful the ocean is. Books, white boards, and lectures would be hard-pressed to impart these truths with such a degree of success.

Program graduate Victoria Zeleya, who is now a senior at the Animo Leadership High School in Inglewood, CA, says that she felt obliged to share everything she learned on Catalina with others in her community who had never had such educational opportunities and knew very little about the ocean, despite living a couple miles from the beach. “I knew that I wanted to give back to my community and apply everything I had learned from the program to the real world,” said Victoria, “whether it was about science, friendship, or the importance of trying different things.”

Ultimately, this is the best news for USC Sea Grant and for the ocean. Not everyone will pursue careers in marine science, but everyone is a citizen of the earth and is affected by the health of the ocean. Once someone falls in love with the ocean, that will change the way they behave and the decisions they make for the rest of their lives.