V.I. Youth Explore the Sea While Preparing for STEM Careers

On a recent moonlit Saturday night, folks glancing from John Brewers Bay beach toward the barely visible horizon might have seen a dozen or more eerie points of  light, moving and flickering half way between the shore line and the Cyril E. King Airport runway. 

However, there was nothing spooky about what was behind the confounding luminance, only a few dozen teens, parents and science geeks, wading through the shallows on the eastern end of the bay on a Seashore Trek. The evening’s event marked the close of the third annual four-week Youth Ocean Explorers Program (YOE) hosted by the Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service. This evenings’ event was the first of many planned ongoing opportunities for YOE participants to continue their discoveries in marine science.

 Charlotte Amalie High School student Kadejsha Tonge, 14, said the YOE program, “Opened my eyes to how sick” the ocean had become and made her want to “fix” it.  She said the hands-on experience she gained this summer and during her previous two summers in the program will help her in that endeavor.

Youth Ocean Explorers, the substantially more ambitious offshoot of the 5-day Coral Reef Discovery Week of several years ago, is open to students in grades seven through twelve. 

Trevette Williams, 15, is also in his third year with YOE. “I have always loved nature,” he said Saturday night, and intends to eventually make a career in ocean science.

In fact, according to program director Howard Forbes Jr., 10 of the 23 young people who completed the summer program intend to pursue marine science as a course of study. 

 YOE students dissecting a blue crab.

YOE students dissecting a blue crab.

This is good news for the sponsors and the University of the Virgin Islands.  The program which provides a broad overview of a variety of marine career opportunities including oceanography, watershed resource management, marine biology, larval ecology, fisheries science, robotics science, and DNA engineering seeks as a prime goal to encourage more local young people to gain interest in and pursue STEM careers. 

In fact, YOE is part of a marine science career pathway program at UVI which is funded by the National Science Foundation’s INCLUDES program. Next year, the program will continue with additional funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and matching funds from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. This career pathway program is called SEAS Your Tomorrow; SEAS stands for Supporting Emerging Aquatic Scientists. The SEAS Program provides hands-on research opportunities for freshman and sophomore undergraduate students at UVI through summer internships with community, science-oriented partners like the Department of Planning & Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy. The SEAS Your Tomorrow Program also provides new opportunities for Masters students at UVI through the Bridge to the Ph.D. Program with Pennsylvania State University. This eight-week summer experience gives UVI Masters students the taste of what a Ph.D. is like and provides new career training skills in the marine sciences.

 
“The SEAS Your Tomorrow Program is unique because it provides a complete career pathway program for USVI students interested in the marine sciences from middle school through to the Ph.D. A program like this is important, particularly for getting more students from underrepresented and underserved groups in STEM involved in the ocean sciences, which is one of the least diverse of all the STEM fields,” says Dr. Kristin Wilson Grimes, Assistant Professor and Project Lead for the SEAS Your Tomorrow program.
 
 YOE student compiling field data into a visual chart.

YOE student compiling field data into a visual chart.

Williams’ enthusiasm is the spark organizers hope to ignite in local youngsters through classroom laboratory sessions, and hands-on activities which  bring them up close and personal with marine plants, fish, coral and invertebrates in the first two weeks.  The second two weeks introduce ecological principals such as marine animal interactions, marine debris issues, global warming, water quality testing and the impact of human activity on environmental health.

Tonge demonstrated her accumulating knowledge as she expressed her concern over humanity’s lack of stewardship of the natural world under the sea.  “Over my last three years I have seen the corals become more unhealthy,” she said, “and it’s us” doing the damage. 

One of the observations made by both Tonge and Williams was the abundance of algae that had accumulated in the bay, especially by the dock at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) Center for Marine and Environmental Studies (CMES). They attributed the aggregation to the activities surrounding Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, saying the algae was not visible the prior two years. 

Click on a photo below to learn more about the students' activities.

The two expressed concern that the algae prevented the small fish predators from reaching through the thick masses of growth to feast on the smaller fry or “bait fish” as they are known.

The proliferation of the smaller species used by local fisherman led to boats not usually found in the sensitive area navigating the shallow sea bed to capture the small fish. The shallows are home to many other species with a potential for serious even fatal damage to the developing sea creatures who make their homes in the warm, safe waters. 

Forbes  said he was happy to know the students were concerned. “That’s what we are hoping for.”

 YOE students using a beach seine to collect and identify fish in Brewers Bay (all collected animals were returned to the ocean)

YOE students using a beach seine to collect and identify fish in Brewers Bay (all collected animals were returned to the ocean)

Tonge and Williams, along with the other 21 students who completed the four-week course, initiated independently driven projects with little external input or influence. The students chose their “capstone projects” while mentors provided some insights and suggested  methodologies along with a little guidance and materials as needed. The student groups were inspired by some of the information given to them early on in the program and decided which topics they wanted to explore further on their own.

Some of the capstone projects the students chose and developed  included:

–  conducting an inventory of marine life found in Brewers Bay, which may ultimately provide a valuable baseline that can be and has been built upon year after year;

– investigating the specific effects of electromagnetism, which is known to affect some animal species, on fish and invertebrates;

– the prevalence and  habitat  preferences of the up-side-down jellyfish which  are commonly found in shallow lagoons similar to  that of Brewer’s Bay; 

– developing environmental literacy through marine life identification of fish species and invertebrate phylums most commonly found in Brewers Bay; and 

– a marine debris art project which dramatically showcased the negative impacts of single use plastics through the creation of a plastic jellyfish built from only such debris.

Tonge was quick to point out that sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their food.  When the turtles ingest the bags they eventually die. 

 YOE student enjoying a day spent in the St. Thomas East Reserves kayaking and collecting GPS coordinates of derelict vessels.

YOE student enjoying a day spent in the St. Thomas East Reserves kayaking and collecting GPS coordinates of derelict vessels.

As part of the efforts to engage YOE students beyond the summer, 8 students have begun Open Water SCUBA certification classes courtesy of Coki Beach Dive Shop. 

Along with classroom instruction, participants’ swimming abilities are evaluated, and, if necessary, swimming lessons are provided by lifeguard certified team leaders. 

Additionally, because Youth Ocean Explorers mirrors the University’s  Masters of Marine & Environmental Studies program, students are also provided with  professional development opportunities such as how to communicate scientific concepts in laymen’s terms and public speaking in general. 

The program would not  be possible without the financial and moral support provided by The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, Tropical Shipping, The Prior Foundation, Lana Vento Charitable Trust, the Marine Rebuild Fund and VI-EPSCoR. 

Not only did the sponsors’ financial support allow the organizers to waive the $300 per person registration fees this year, but it also provided students with an opportunity to become SCUBA certified.  Each student will also receive their own professional- grade snorkel gear. 

It is the strong desire of the facilitators of this critical career development program to extend it to St. Croix and St. John, or alternatively implement a residential option for students from across the Territory to come to St. Thomas.  With the level of donations already received, coupled with future financial backing, there is no doubt these plans will be realized.

Needless to say, money is important, but equally so is the support of family, parents and others, according to program coordinator Jarvon Stout.  “When families are engaged, he said, “the success rate for students is greater.” 

To that end, organizers are already working on plans for more events such as the nighttime Seashore Trek, during which, one participant watched as an octopus, swam between her feet and reached his tentacle into her water shoe. 

The University of the Virgin Islands has the only technical dive program at a historically black college and university, and the largest dive program under the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. Career opportunities for local youth may be realized with a Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education, and Youth Ocean Explorers is a logical first step on that path.

 Jumping into the ocean was the student's favorite way to end the day.

Jumping into the ocean was the student's favorite way to end the day.