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.
"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
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.
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.
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!