She’s bringing the ocean – as well as science – closer to low-income youths

Shara Fisler founded Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego to engage the area’s young people. Activities include looking at creatures in tide pools, learning about molecular biology, and even swimming with whale sharks.

Shara Fisler, founder of Ocean Discovery Institute, stands near the site of its $17 million Living Lab, which is set to open by early 2018.

Carla Camacho grew up in the San Diego neighborhood of City Heights, in which some 30 languages and 100 dialects are spoken in the schools. Besides its diversity, however, the neighborhood is also known for high poverty rates.

Ms. Camacho, now in her mid-20s, acknowledges that, like many other City Heights youths, she was isolated. “You never really understand what else is in the world,” she says.

That all changed at the age of 14, when she joined Ocean Discovery Institute for an intensive science research project in Mexico’s Baja California. “With Ocean Discovery, they helped me to discover those things,” she says of the opportunities out there. “You’re doing awesome things like swimming with whale sharks.”

Founded in 1999 in San Diego, Ocean Discovery is a nonprofit organization that aims to open up new worlds for the area’s underserved young people. It taps into the vast resource in these youngsters’ backyard – the Pacific Ocean – and offers an array of possibilities for learning about science and engaging in research.

It’s the creation of Shara Fisler, who was inspired by research she did with young people when she was teaching at a university.

“We are totally dedicated to every child’s success, and know that they can be successful,” says Ms. Fisler, Ocean Discovery’s founder and executive director. “Every young person we work with has the capacity to become a science and conservation leader.”

When Fisler started Ocean Discovery, it was based in a rehabbed 250-square-foot kayak closet along San Diego’s Mission Bay. A makeshift laboratory was shoehorned into the tiny space, she recalls, yet it was enough space to host some meaningful experiences for youths.

Much has changed since that time, but the organization’s mission has remained constant. Ocean Discovery focuses on a “kid to career” timeline, with the hope that exposing young men and women to science can build the curiosity, understanding, and leadership that can spark a real interest in a career in science.

Today, Ocean Discovery hosts operations both at popular Pacific Beach and in City Heights. Some 10,000 children are within walking distance of the organization’s hub in City Heights.

In February, Fisler boosted the nonprofit’s commitment to that community, opening a $17 million Living Lab. The facility includes a state-of-the-art laboratory and learning space – even a residency program for scientists.

From a few hundred to room for 10,000

When Ocean Discovery launched, no more than a few hundred youths were engaged in programming each year. Today, that figure has risen to 6,000, and the Living Lab will easily allow the organization to exceed 10,000 on an annual basis.

Activities at Ocean Discovery range from dissecting a worm to learning about molecular biology. There are ample field experiences – anything from helping with habitat restoration to looking at creatures in tide pools. As the participants get older, they have more intensive opportunities involving deeper research.

“They are developing solutions that are really getting implemented around the world,” says Fisler, citing one project in which youths worked with researchers to find a way to reduce inadvertent catching of sea turtles in commercial fishing equipment. The team found that using light sticks can deter turtles from winding up in fishing nets, and the approach is being tested in Peru, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

On a recent afternoon, Fisler spoke with the Monitor in a trailer housing the nonprofit, just a short walk from the site of the soon-to-be-opened Living Lab. She shared how her interest in science education and working with underserved youths came about shortly after she earned her master’s degree in marine resource management from the University of Miami. She was then teaching as an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Diego, as well as continuing research begun during her graduate studies.

Fisler connected with an organization seeking internship placements for high-schoolers and would-be first-generation college students, and she involved a small team of those young people in her research for a summer.

“I saw what they were able to contribute to the scientific process, and I also saw their confidence just dramatically change over the course of the summer,” she says. “The way I could best tackle scientific problems was by providing opportunities for students who would otherwise not have them.”

That same spirit fuels Ocean Discovery, which now functions on a $2.2 million annual budget and has 28 staff members, including 10 AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members. Programs are tuition-free, so the more than 350 volunteers and the combined support from government funding, foundations, individual donations, and corporate and in-kind giving are key.

How participants have succeeded

The nonprofit has celebrated success among its program participants. “We have students who are engineers, who are really excited about what they are doing, [and] we’ve got students that are incredibly passionate about fisheries,” Fisler says.

Data show that participants’ grade-point average in science classes is more than a point higher, on average, than that for nonparticipants, and state standardized test scores indicate similar gains. Some 7 in 10 participants are earning degrees in science or conservation, and students in Ocean Discovery’s after-school programs are eight times as likely to earn a college degree as are youths in the United States with a similar background.

Alumni routinely return to Ocean Discovery, Fisler says, whether it is to help teach, share information about their careers in the sciences, or mentor.

One such alumna, Camacho, has maintained her involvement with Ocean Discovery. Today, she serves as the organization’s manager of business development, and she’s worked with Fisler to explore replicating the program elsewhere – with a target to open a similar venture in Norfolk, Va.

“We found that every single community has a need for science education programs like these,” she says.

Praise from NOAA

Sarah Schoedinger, a senior program manager in the Office of Education at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, learned of Ocean Discovery in 2006 when her office provided a small grant to engage NOAA scientists in programs with young people. Since that time, the two entities have forged a deeper partnership, and NOAA has been involved in recruiting for the nonprofit’s scientist-in-residence program and in the replication of the business model in Norfolk.

“I’ve learned from first-hand observation of their programs and conversations with current and former students about myriad positive impacts they have on the kids, their families and other members of the community, and even the physical landscape in the local community,” Ms. Schoedinger says in an email interview. “Ocean Discovery Institute is a trusted partner among the City Heights community, [and] I think they have succeeded in doing so, at least in part, because they are there serving those kids year-in and year-out.”

She also speaks highly of Fisler’s leadership. “Shara definitely sets the tone of the workplace culture there for staff, volunteers and students: You’re expected to work hard, learn from mistakes, but also to have fun and celebrate successes....”

For Fisler, it’s all about inspiring youths in ways they might not have considered: “A young person will start to believe that science is something they can do,” she says, “and a scientist is something they can be.”

[This story has been updated to include news of the facility’s opening in February.] 

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How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups encouraging conservation or learning:

EcoLogic Development Fund works with rural and indigenous peoples to protect tropical ecosystems in Central America and Mexico. Take action: Support conservation in Honduras’s Pico Bonito National Park.

Teach With Africa coordinates a reciprocal exchange of teaching and learning in Africa and the United States. Take action: Cover the expenses for a teacher to spend a summer in South Africa working with children.

Seeds of Learning fosters learning in developing communities of Central America while educating volunteers about the region. Take action: Support this organization’s Learning Resource Centers in Nicaragua.

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