Imagine living in a coastal North Carolina county, maybe 10 or 15 miles from the ocean. Imagine growing up within a half hour drive of the beach but never stepping foot on the sand or picking up a seashell tossed in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. For many fifth graders, visiting Masonboro Island is their first experience at the beach, and on a boat.
Since 2013, Masonboro.org’s Island Explorer program has introduced thousands of fifth graders to Masonboro Island’s unique coastal ecosystem through hands-on science lessons. The program shows students the impact humans have on their local ecosystems and teaches them the importance of environmental stewardship. “It surprises me each year how many of our fifth grade students have never been to the beach,” said Jennifer Rosser, a teacher at Bradley Elementary School.
During fieldtrips, students conduct experiments and observations to bring to life concepts they learn in the classroom such as water quality, shoreline changes, barrier island ecology and weather patterns. “Explaining the life cycle of a crab with an actual crab they caught helps them better understand the link between human behavior and the impact to the ecosystem,” said Tom Hackler, a control room supervisor at Brunswick Nuclear Plant and the President of the Board at Masonboro.org.
Although Hackler works in a nuclear plant control room, his background in marine biology and frequent visits to Masonboro Island sparked his interest in protecting the state’s marine resources. “I’ve become more and more aware of pollution in our marine environment. My career with Duke Energy has taught me that even big problems have solutions,” a lesson he hopes students will learn through the Island Explorer Program.
Not only does the Island Explorer Program offer unique experiences, but delivers programs through a unique public-private partnership that includes New Hanover County Schools, Carolina Ocean Studies and N.C. Coastal Reserve with support from the Duke Energy Foundation.
This partnership has allowed the Island Explorer Program to grow from 50 students at one school during the 2013 pilot program, to
more than 1,350 students at 13 schools in the fall of 2017. Program organizers hope to reach 1,830 students by the end of the 2017-2018 school year – every eligible fifth grade student in New Hanover County.
“The main thing we hope students gain from this program is a thrill for learning,” said Richard Cecelski, the Director of Carolina Ocean Studies. “We’re also hoping that the students who come out with us today will become future stewards of Masonboro Island.”
Masonboro.org organized in 2009 to preserve public access to Masonboro Island just off the coast of Wilmington, N.C. Since 2010, the organization of more than 700 volunteers has held an annual 4th of July clean-up on the island, removing over 30,000 pounds of recyclable trash. The Island Explorer program teaches students about the special island ecosystem that volunteers work to protect.