The Colorado Coralition An Adventure Into Deeper Learning

"My first coral restoration dive wasn't the most empowering moment of my trip. It was the one of the most empowering moments of my life." - Nova

"I found myself moving from overwhelming concern about the problem of coral decline to a burning enthusiasm for how we are working to fix it. I know that whatever I end up doing with my life, I want to be as eager and excited about my work as as I am in the Colorado Coralition." - Donavan


The Colorado Coralition, an environmental stewardship and leadership program for middle and high school students, was developed by Dr. Matt Strand at Polaris Expeditionary Learning School, a K-12 public school in northern Colorado’s Poudre School District. As one of Poudre School District's hands-on learning schools, Polaris uses the EL Education model (formerly Expeditionary Learning) to engage students in rigorous real-world learning experiences.

Purpose: to learn scuba skills and scientific knowledge about coral decline and restoration and apply this learning to help the recovery of threatened reefs

The Coralition engages students in combating coral reef decline in the Florida Keys. Polaris students in 7th - 11th grade are accepted into the program based on academic performance, character, and attendance. Once accepted, Dr. Strand leads them in a year-long learning project that involves becoming certified scuba divers, developing creative fundraising projects, diving into learning about the decline of coral, training and collaborating with coral restoration experts, and participating in the Coral Restoration Foundation's dive program to support their work in restoring degraded coral reefs.

Students of the Colorado Coralition learn to identify stages of coral health during a Citizen Science training at the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, Florida.


Dr. Strand developed the Colorado Coralition project in 2014 after completing a fellowship supported by Fund For Teachers, an organization that helps teachers realize their professional learning dreams. Even though he teaches 7th and 8th grade English, he wanted to stretch himself professionally and personally. How could he connect his passion for the natural world with teaching and learning in an authentic way?

Ever since he was a boy, Matt has had a special place in his heart for the ocean. Growing up near the Texas Gulf Coast, visiting family in the Bay Area, and traveling with his wife to her home state of Florida have helped him stay connected to the sea despite living in northern Colorado.

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.

Dr. Strand's first coral restoration dives in Key Largo, Florida.

The Colorado Coralition

Real-world projects such as the Coralition require innovative thinking about how learning experiences are structured in schools. To support in-depth learning opportunities beyond the classroom, Polaris schedules three project weeks, called “Intensive Weeks”, throughout the school year. During Intensives, regular coursework is suspended. Students in 6th - 12th grade sign up for field-based projects that highlight science and technology, the arts, service learning, adventure programming, and/or career exploration.

Songwriting Intensive students perform their original songs live on the air at local Fort Collins public radio station KRFC 88.9
Polaris students work with wildlife biologists to track Yellowstone wolves on a Wolf Reintroduction Adventure Trip

Despite this flexibility, training youth to participate in coral restoration efforts requires scuba certification from an accredited program, rigorous study and interaction with experts, and extensive fundraising for chartering commercial dive boats and travel. The Coralition therefore uses all three Intensive weeks to meet these needs: the first one involving scuba certification; the second focusing on service learning, fundraising, research, and public presentation; and the third involving a trip to Florida to help experts at the Coral Restoration Foundation plant healthy coral fragments on threatened reefs.

Scuba Certification

Once accepted into the Coralition, students immediately plunge into a week of intense studying. They know that at the end of the week, they must earn a 100% on a written test. These middle and high school students must demonstrate understanding of topics such as dive theory, safety protocols, equipment use, nonverbal communication signals, decompression sickness, and responsible diving techniques. Once they pass the classroom portion, they are ready to enter the pool.

"It's one thing to study for a test to get a passing grade, but it's completely different when you have a passion for what you are learning." - Colton

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.

Colorado Coralition students at a City of Fort Collins pool and in Homestead Crater.

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.

Polaris students spent several days building a haunted house experience to scare up additional funds for their coral restoration adventure.

In addition to raising funds for the trip, Dr. Strand and his students work hard to get the word out about the Coralition. In the Coralition's second year, Jared, a 9th grader, designed an outstanding Colorado Coralition t-shirt with his father. These shirts were sold as an online fundraiser. Students wear these shirts with pride at events, presentations, on the trip to Florida, and at school.

Coralition students also present their learning in local and national presentations. One standout example is when four students from the first trip to Florida were selected to present at the 2015 EL Education national conference in San Diego, CA. For two hours, these four girls masterfully led teachers, school leaders, and philanthropists from around the country in a master session on the power of engaging students in real-world problems.

As word spread, more and more avenues for spreading the word about this unique project have presented themselves. Three articles have been written about the Coralition: one in northern Colorado, one in Fort Collins, and one in the Florida Keys. The Colorado Coralition project is also featured in the EL Education Models of Excellence Center for High Quality Student Work. The Coralition is also proud to be an official partner of the Mission Blue/Sylvia Earle Alliance, a national organization that promotes marine protection areas, or "Hope Spots", on a global scale.


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


Coralition students learn a great deal about coral restoration to prepare them for specialized diving tasks.

Upon arriving in Florida, the learning intensifies. Following in their teacher's footsteps, these students from landlocked Colorado participate in coral restoration classes at the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) in Key Largo. For two days, students learn from CRF experts about the anatomy and physiology of Acropora cervicornis, or staghorn coral. They discuss the pros and cons of different restoration methods and the ethical dilemmas that lie at the heart of restoration science. In hands-on workshops, Coralition students learn the CRF process for handling and cleaning coral as well as outplanting techniques. In Citizen Science workshops, they learn to assess the health and growth of previously outplanted colonies. With their minds sharpened and skills refined, the students of the Colorado Coralition are ready to dive.

"Ever since I was a child, my dream has been to see all of the life in the ocean: sharks, sting rays, sea turtles, a million fish. That first dive showed me that dreams can come true, as long as you are willing to work towards them." - Maeve

The Underwater Garden

The Coral Restoration Foundation owns and operates one of the largest offshore coral nurseries in the world. Baby staghorn coral fragments are hung from artificial "trees". Caressed by the perpetual ebb and flow of the current, these fragments grow to a healthy size over the course of a few months.

Students' first task is to gently scrub the coral trees with a brush to remove algae. It isn't easy to maintain neutral buoyancy 10 feet off the sandy bottom while doing this work, but Coralition students rely on their training and teamwork to succeed. Next, as CRF leaders "harvest" larger fragments, Coralition students affix each one with a tag containing genetic information. This enables CRF to later identify genotypes that are more resilient to acidification and disease. After tagging, the coral fragments are collected and transported back to the boat for outplanting on the reef.

Outplanting Coral

Since its inception, CRF has planted over 11,000 corals on Florida's reefs, making a concerted effort to repopulate staghorn colonies and improve the marine ecoystem. The outplanting process is the key to this mission. On these dives, Coralition students congregate on the ocean floor before heading out to the reef in small groups.

At the restoration site, students prepare the reef by removing layers of algae and sand with a hammer. Three points of contact are needed to plant a coral fragment that can withstand ocean currents. Students quickly learn how all of their skills are put to the test as they prepare the site while avoiding contact with the fragile reef.

To outplant a coral fragment, a pink marine-grade epoxy is rolled into blueberry-sized pieces. Each piece is attached to the three points of contact on the coral's branches so it can be pressed into the cleared spots on the reef surface. Multiple fragments are placed in one location so that they can fuse together and form a colony over time.

So far, students of the Colorado Coralition have collectively outplanted over 140 staghorn coral on Florida's reefs. Some of the students who were on the first trip in 2015 made a return trip as student leaders in 2017. This enabled them to see coral colonies they had planted with their own hands two years before.

"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

Final Thoughts

There is great power in engaging students with real world problems. To show students where the horizon of practice lies is to empower them as learners and leaders. A teacher therefore leads learning by example because he or she is willing to take a step out of their own comfort zone, to tackle complex problems or topics, experience success and failure, and apply what is learned in new settings.

This type of learning is not simple. The answers are not at the back of the book. If we wish to create learning spaces where students desire to work hard, collaborate, apply their knowledge, and create innovative solutions, then we must take this leap ourselves. We must be the change we wish to see in our students, a change that leads to a better world.

"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