Connecting with the ocean: Recent research in ocean literacy

By Kate Le Souef

The ocean is a vital part of the lives of many Canadians. About 80% of B.C.’s population lives in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, in close proximity to the ocean. A number of innovative researchers in B.C. are studying just how British Columbians are connected to the ocean.

Sandra Scott is a professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC. She is fascinated by how people learn about the marine environment. In her graduate level classes for qualified elementary and high school teachers, Sandra highlights how connected we are to the marine world through interactive activities, such as beach walks on campus. “The Whale Show” is one of the most popular activities in her courses, where one of her graduate students dresses up as a resident orca and is interviewed about all aspects of their life. This process helps participants to understand that the orca is a member of a family unit with many of the same needs as a human. Sandra hopes her graduate students will incorporate these activities into their own classrooms.

One of Sandra’s co-supervised graduate students is Deborah Simpson, a graduate student at Royal Roads University, Victoria. Deborah studies adult environmental education about the Salish Sea and the numerous marine environmental education events offered around Vancouver. Many of these programs are one-off events that target an already educated audience. Deborah believes the real challenge is extending education programs to adults who are interested in the ocean, but who are not currently engaged by a program.

“Like many Vancouver residents, I was unaware of this uniquely biodiverse marine environment in my own backyard,” Deborah says. “Upon learning about it, not only did I experience awe and wonder, I became more connected to this place I call home.”

This sense of connectedness to the ocean also interests another graduate student, JongMun Kim at UBC. JongMun has studied the connections that sixth grade Korean students have with the ocean using surveys about marine organisms. The students’ connectedness to marine organisms was related to their previous knowledge, experiences and sociocultural backgrounds.

Students tended to feel more connected to organisms that they may have eaten, such as crabs, or that they have seen, such as gulls. A lack of direct experience with an organism often meant students had no feelings of connectedness with the organism. JongMun suggests that increasing direct experience opportunities, such as through a visit to an aquarium, may increase our connectedness to the ocean.

Together this research helps us understand how important feelings of connectedness are in determining how ocean literacy develops in people of all ages.