A 12-week, no-cost, science program called Project Healthy Oceans and People Empowerment that is focused on sixth graders, aims to “produce” the first batch of local marine biologist in the CNMI.
Friends of the Marianas Trench executive director Laurie Peterka said that through Project HOPE, they hope to see 30 local marine biologists by 2030. These will include those fresh out of college or have graduate degrees in marine science.
The project was launched earlier this month and is designed to use experiential learning to help CNMI students understand experimental results, inferences, models, and data. Middle school students have been gathering at Guma Sakman in Susupe on Austerity Mondays for this purpose.
Peterka believes that students still need to have “tactile learning”—or hands-on learning—because learning from a video or a book is not enough. The goal is to show students what they’re learning is “real in their everyday life.”
Since they are focused on sixth-graders, Peterka wants Project HOPE to inspire students that there is something “bigger than themselves.” Peterka said the program is anticipated to occur indefinitely, 12 weeks every semester, with the next batch of students projected to be enrolled by February 2021.
Before launching and writing the grant for Project HOPE, the project’s coordinators first did their research—collecting standardized test scores of sixth grade students over the course of three years. They then presented the argument that they could improve those test scores through Project HOPE, targeting 135 sixth graders.
Peterka said Project HOPE was brought into fruition after years of planning and coordination, which included applying for federal grants and reaching out to the community to learn what issues are most important to the public.
If the pilot program succeeds, more will follow until ultimately, they will be held every year and hopefully inspire more students to become marine scientists, she added.
Peterka said they want to see a population that finds interest and understands the correlation between modern and traditional science.
When asked how the community can help with Project HOPE, Peterka said, “Send us your sixth graders.”
The best thing that can happen, she said, is that the community and parents will encourage their sixth grade students in public schools to join the program and for the students to get the support of their science teachers and principals.
Project HOPE is currently offered only to public school students because that is how its federal grant was written. However, this may be adjusted in the future in order to include private school students, depending on what the spring enrollment will look like, she said.
She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the project launch date, which was originally set for February 2020. Enrollment was low due to the global health crisis, but it picked up as COVID-19 restrictions gradually loosened. But because it was unable to reach its initial target audience before the start of the new school year, the project currently includes seventh graders.
College students, community development partners, and ocean elders are also involved in the project, which combines traditional knowledge about the environment with current Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, or STEM, principles. College students are interviewed and trained before joining the team that organizes the learning sessions of the project.
Outreach specialists from community development partners such as the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality bring a twist to the traditional classroom setting by providing more hands-on activities while complying with COVID-19 social distancing directives. Elders such as master navigator Antonio “Tony” Piailug, the son of the great Mau Piailug, share their traditional knowledge of the sea.