It was Fund For Teachers that helped him fulfill his passion for integrating real-world learning in a public school setting. His 2014 fellowship allowed Dr. Strand to earn his Open Water Diver scuba certification, fly to Key Largo, and volunteer with the Coral Restoration Foundation, a marine conservation nonprofit at the leading edge of restoration science. Using all he had learned, he worked side-by-side with marine biologists, outplanting healthy coral fragments on threatened reefs. There, on the bottom of the ocean, his hands busy attaching coral to the reef substrate, he thought to himself, I wonder if I can design a program where kids can have this same incredible experience? It was at that moment that the seeds of the Colorado Coralition were sown.
The scuba certification phase is facilitated by the Colorado Scuba Diving Academy. Instructors lead the confined water dive section over several days in a local pool. Led by knowledgeable Divemasters, Coralition students participate in a series of equipment assembly tasks, skill workshops, and dive technique challenges. If a student has not yet met a specific criteria, they use feedback and revised effort to show progress. Since Colorado is a landlocked state and scuba certification requires open water dives in deeper water, the Coralition has to be creative. For these final dives, the group travels to Homestead Crater, a 65-foot deep thermal spring in nearby Utah, to demonstrate their skills for their final certification dives.
Students also participate in "refresher courses" throughout the school year to further hone their diving skills.
Fundraising, Promotion, Research, and Public Presentation
From its inception, one of the guiding principles of the Coralition has been that any student, regardless of socioeconomic background or scientific understanding, can participate in a Florida coral restoration adventure if they have a passion for the environment and are committed to making the project a reality. Fulfilling this principle requires a lot of creative problem-solving and teamwork...far more than what could be accomplished during three Intensive weeks. A great deal of work and learning takes place throughout year. Dr. Strand schedules regular meetings, much like after school clubs, for tackling a variety of projects to help students prepare for and fund their trip to Florida.
Fundraising for a trip of this magnitude is divided into individual and group initiatives. For individual funding, Coralition students create small businesses (such as homemade jewelry, a school coffee stand, popcorn sales in the parent pick-up line, etc.). Students also develop their own crowdfunding campaigns to reach out to social networks. Dr. Strand shares Coralition video footage with students and facilitates video editing workshops to help students create high quality promotional videos to complement their fundraising efforts.
Multiple group initiatives also help make students' fundraising goals within reach. For example, a student-led project on DonorsChoose helped pay for scuba equipment and a chartered boat. Students have organized and run an ocean-themed school dance. A bowling event brought students and families together after school, and students helped build and act in at the Lost Souls Lair haunted house during Halloween.
Since the 1970's, Florida has lost a staggering 98% of staghorn coral, a keystone reef-building species. What was once a rich ecosystem and a last line of defense against hurricanes has now been reduced to rubble. Cumulative stressors have contributed to this dramatic decline, including:
bleaching events due to increased ocean acidification and warming,
reefs dominated by macroalgae due to a devastating loss of herbivore species (sea urchins),
diseases from coastal pollution (sewage and fertilizer runoff),
overfishing of algae-grazing species (such as parrotfish), and
irresponsible scuba diving (trampling), ship groundings, and anchor damage.
The students of the Coralition know that understanding coral decline and restoration methods requires being a leader of one's own learning. The content is demanding, the issues are complex, and the timing is urgent. If they are truly to become stewards of the environment, they need a great deal of background knowledge to help them think critically about the intersection of biology, ecology, economic drivers, and human action.
To prepare students for their trip to Florida, Dr. Strand collects a variety of resources and experiences and creates space for them to dive deep into these complex topics. Students access numerous videos, read news and research articles, and pose questions. In after school meetings, they engage in web conferences with experts from the Mission Blue/Sylvia Earle Alliance and the Coral Restoration Foundation.
"Learning how much coral reefs matter to the world and how they are being destroyed really bothered me. But discovering what can be done locally and globally inspired me. It helped me feel even more passionate about the ocean and led me to having the perseverance to get to Florida so I could combat the issue on the front lines." - Ari
"The most powerful moments for me as a teacher are when I am planting coral side by side with my students on the bottom of the ocean. But one of the most powerful moments of my life has been seeing coral we outplanted on previous Coralition trips, a thriving habitat beneath the waves. Suspended underwater together, my students and I float in silence, beholding our past and the future in the shimmering light." - Dr. Matt Strand
"Throughout this project, we became closer through communication, risk taking, and a commitment to the tasks at hand. We helped each other and were not afraid to encourage each other and keep going, especially when it was difficult. We did this because we are not passengers. We did this because we are crew." - Mariana
"Through all of the studying, fundraising, and working, I learned to become a leader of my own learning. This means that I see the importance of going above and beyond, reaching out, or bringing significance to my work, and that I can do this of my own accord." - Jared
"Being a part of the Coralition gave me a firsthand look at what is really going on below the ocean's surface...and what we can do to help." - Odin
"I learned why I was scared to dive and I learned how to overcome that fear. In doing so, I learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of." -Heidi
"It took so much hard work to get to the bottom of the ocean: studying to become an certified scuba diver, fundraising and informing people about our project, learning about coral decline, taking Coral Restoration Foundation classes, and diving with my peers and new friends from CRF. It was all worth it, because by meeting our goals, we helped our world and community become a better place." - Maddie
"In the end, what we do on this planet matters, for better or for worse. I am happy to know that the work we did during our trip has a positive impact on the environment. So I feel empowered by this experience, and I want to use my skills and my learning to make a better world." - Brooke
Photos by Matt Strand, Jessica Levy, Sara Abbott, Don Rhodes, and Mark Birk