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.

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 in-depth learning about the decline of staghorn coral, training and collaborating with coral restoration experts, and taking part in multiple dives to help "outplant" healthy staghorn coral fragments on 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.


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.

Even though he teaches 7th and 8th grade English, Matt wanted to connect his passion for the natural world with teaching and learning in an authentic way. It was Fund For Teachers, an organization that awards fellowships to support teachers' professional learning, that helped him fulfill his passion for integrating real-world learning in a public school setting. His 2014 Fund For Teachers fellowship allowed Dr. Strand to earn his Open Water Diver scuba certification, fly to Key Largo, and volunteer with the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), 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.


A guiding principle of the Colorado Coralition is that if students are motivated to create a better world, and teachers design meaningful real-world experiences to ignite this passion, students can accomplish more than they ever thought possible. When a curriculum is extended beyond the classroom walls, students naturally take a more active role in their learning. But when this learning is coupled with an invitation to work side-by-side with experts who are dedicated to saving the environment, students feel a deep sense that they are needed, empowering and inspiring them to master a diverse set of physical, social, and academic skills. Therefore, the purpose of the Colorado Coralition is to engage students in a real-world project to help them become leaders of their own learning.

"It took so much hard work to get to the bottom of the ocean: studying to become an certified scuba diver, fundraising, learning about coral decline, and diving with my peers and new friends from the Coral Restoration Foundation. It was all worth it, because by meeting our goals, we helped our world and community become a better place." - Maddie

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 week-long fieldwork 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

To accomplish a great deal of learning throughout the school year, the Coralition involves all three Intensive weeks: the September Intensive involving scuba certification; the February Intensive focusing on service learning and a scuba refresher courseand the May Intensive involving a trip to Florida to help experts at the Coral Restoration Foundation plant healthy coral fragments on threatened reefs. These Intensives are coupled with biweekly meetings throughout the year that rotate between a focus on fundraising efforts and researching scientific content. Much like attending an after school club, Coralition students convene to generate and plan fundraising efforts, build background knowledge on coral decline, and interact with experts through web conferences. By the time students travel to Florida, they have spent a year diving deeply into a variety of skills and content.

Mastery of Skills and Content

"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

Scuba Certification

Once accepted into the Coralition, students immediately plunge into a week of intense studying. 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. This phase of scuba certification is facilitated by the Colorado Scuba Diving Academy. Instructors lead the confined water dive section over several days in a local pool. Guided 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.

Scientific Content

The students of the Coralition know that understanding coral decline and restoration methods is serious business. 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 CRF. By the time they arrive in Florida, they are prepared to apply their scientific knowledge and scuba diving skills to engage in purposeful fieldwork.

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. Coralition students spend the year learning about the causes of this dramatic decline:
bleaching events due to increased ocean acidification and warming,
reefs dominated by algae due to a devastating loss of herbivore species, such as 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.

Fieldwork: Coral Restoration Classes

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 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.

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

Fieldwork: Coral Nursery Dives

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 in the nursery 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 ocean acidification and disease. After tagging, the coral fragments are collected and transported back to the boat for outplanting on the reef.

Fieldwork: Outplanting Coral

Since its inception, CRF has planted over 12,000 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. With coral fragments in hand, these teams follow a CRF leader to a degraded reef site and begin preparing the ocean floor for outplanting.

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. Bringing students back to the reef unexpectedly triggered the most powerful moment of the second expedition. As Dr. Strand and his student leaders hovered in shared silence over abundant patches of healthy coral, it dawned on them that these coral colonies were in fact the very fragments they had planted with their own hands two years before. To see the evidence of students' work and learning flourishing on the ocean floor is a vivid reminder of the power of a Better World Project.


Effective Learning Habits

Students rely on a wide range of character traits to participate in the Colorado Coralition. One of the most powerful outcomes of this work is becoming an effective learner. The scuba certification phase demands development of study skills as well as using feedback from dive masters to improve technique. Students also rely on one another for safety, using a dive buddy system to check each other's equipment before diving and nonverbal communication during dives. Meanwhile, the scientific components of the Coralition require a more scholarly approach. Researching current trends in marine science necessitates careful reading and note-taking, while web conferences and coral restoration classes foster active listening, critical thinking, and asking questions of experts. The rigorous demands of a real-world problem invite students to grow as learners in meaningful, lasting ways.


Coralition students also gain a lot of experience working effectively with peers, whether it is in study sessions or on a working dive. Coral restoration work is a team effort, requiring students to work in close proximity as they complete specialized tasks and maintain neutral buoyancy to keep them from touching the fragile reef. This proficiency with collaboration during demanding tasks stems from working together throughout the school year on fundraising efforts. Students work hard to create fundraising projects to make their trip to Florida possible. 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 a haunted house during Halloween. Students invest a great deal of time and energy in these events because they know they serve a greater purpose. Plus, they are a lot of fun!

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

Environmental Stewardship

Beyond the development of effective learning habits and collaborative skills, students develop an ethic of environmental stewardship. One way this mindset is cultivated is through service learning. As part of the February Intensive, students volunteer at a local food bank, sorting and packaging donated goods for those experiencing food insecurity.

Colorado Coralition students packaging food at the Larimer County Food Bank

Coralition students also make connections to environmental impacts in their own community. By looking at historical data regarding water quality in a local river, they internalize how human activity impacts ecosystems over time. Students also study electric, natural gas, and solid waste data from Polaris Expeditionary Learning School and Poudre School District and develop action plans for reducing energy demands and waste streams within the school. These local case studies help Coralition students understand their roles as servant leaders, igniting a deep passion for being a positive force for change in the world.

"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


It is one thing to be a skillful diver. It is another to put one's heart, mind, and hands into service projects or research. But Coralition students are also ambassadors -- a role that places a special emphasis on the quality of their work and how they engage with the world. Their products must be of professional quality if they hope to galvanize support and interest in their project. Craftsmanship in the Coralition is crucial.

Incorporating the Arts

Coralition students have many talents. Some are great public speakers. Others are fantastic singers and musicians. Others are graphic artists. Students are encouraged to use these talents to broaden the Coralition message. Because these products become emblematic of the Coralition program, these products go through many cycles of revision and critique before their release.

In 2015, a group of Coralition students, Ella, Talia, Mariana, and Caleb, worked together to write and perform an original song about the complexity of real-world problems. They met daily with ideas, discussing the central ideas of the Coralition and playing with lyrical possibilities. After a few days of drafting and rehearsal, this talented group completed their song "Finding the Wrong in the Light". Once completed, Dr. Strand reserved space for them at a professional recording studio to record the song. "Finding the Wrong in the Light" is proudly featured as a soundtrack for a video Dr. Strand put together about the first Coralition adventure trip in 2015.

In the Coralition's second year, Jared, a 9th grader, designed an outstanding Colorado Coralition t-shirt and logo with his father. Jared worked through countless hours and drafts to develop these designs. 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.


Technology also plays an important role in helping students share their learning with others as well as promoting fundraising efforts. Throughout the year, Dr. Strand captures and shares Coralition video footage with students. He then facilitates video editing workshops to help students create high quality promotional videos to complement their crowdfunding campaigns. Students hone their scripts and videos through several peer critique sessions before publishing them online. Students then share these videos in their social networks, educating their friends and family while providing a helpful source of funding for their coral restoration trip.

Public Presentation

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. After weeks of planning and practice, these four girls masterfully led teachers, school leaders, and philanthropists from around the country in a 2-hour 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. Two newspaper articles have been written about the Coralition: one in northern Colorado and one in the Florida Keys. Students were interviewed by professional journalists interested in sharing the story of the Coralition with the world.

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

"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

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