My NMEA 2019 Experience

By: Patrick Wells

This blog post will review my trip to the 2019 National Marine Educators Association Conference (NMEA). The conference was hosted by the Gulf of Maine Marine Educators Association  (GOMMEA) at the University of New Hampshire campus in the town of Durham, New Hampshire. This was my second NMEA conference and since I hail from near-by Nova Scotia, I felt comfortable flying into Boston and driving north to New Hampshire. After landing in Logan airport and two hours of driving, I arrived in Durham and found the campus was quaint, very “New England,” and full of helpful NMEA 2019 conference committee members. My first order of business was the “NMEA 2019 Welcome for International Attendees” at the Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory. This rapid segue from travel into the conference hit the spot with good food and immersion into ocean education discussions with colleagues from around the world. After catching up with friends from NMEA 2017, I drove to a nearby beach to collect some seashells and then settled into my on-campus accommodations to unpack and prepare for three intense days with my fellow marine educators. I had reviewed the conference agenda in the weeks before my arrival and was savouring the presentations I would attend over the next three days; the plenary sessions looked particularly impressive.

Flying into Boston (left) and the University of New Hampshire Campus (photo – unh.edu)

On Monday morning, Dr. Bob Stenek opened the conference with a plenary session on fisheries research focused on cod and lobster. Bob is a distinguished marine scientist and educator and provided the audience with a far-reaching historical examination of the fishery of the Gulf of Maine. Bob reviewed his extensive research program, that included many collaborators, and I was struck with how humans, both indigenous and settlers, had changed cod and lobster populations over several millennia. Presently, cod are in relatively low numbers and 75% of the Gulf of Maine fishery is based on one species – lobster. Lobstering is booming with high productivity, yet Bob lamented that an industry based upon one species is a precarious undertaking. I found this predicament to be strikingly similar to the collapsed fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador which, in its heyday, was based on one species – northern cod. Science the Gulf of Maine is warming more rapidly than many parts of the ocean, I left this session with a feeling of pins and needles for both the fish and the fishers.

Immediately after the coffee break, I presented a place-based learning project that I conducted with high school students and local mariners in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland. The full story of our project was published in the Journal of Ocean Technology and describes how project participants collectively developed, built, and deployed arrays to monitor ocean water temperatures in Conception Bay (NL). The arrays used iButton® thermocrons to document temporal variations related to depth, seasonality, and weather conditions. The collected surface and bottom temperature data were correlated with the seasonality of migratory species. This project brought forth aspects of learning that were unexpected and these challenges, and student solutions, were the reasons I enjoy conducting this type of learning with my students.

After lunch, I attended presentations on “Virtual reality in Marine Education” (Geraldine Fauville), “Factors that lead kids to engage in positive ocean behaviours” (Kristen Crawford), and “Connect to the Arctic” (Holly Morin). The formal conference-day ended with a meeting of the Education Research and Evaluation Committee. We discussed our upcoming session on Wednesday morning then and transitioned into the much anticipated informal event in Portsmouth.

As a weather watcher, I should note that as day-one of NMEA 2019 forged ahead, it was damp; at times it poured from the heavens. The evening schedule called for a heavy hors d’oeuvres in Portsmouth, at the picturesque Strawbery Banke Museum. As we boarded the bus in the rain to head to Strawbery Banke, I wondered how could this outdoor gathering be a success? We drove into Portsmouth and when we were dropped off at what was historically Puddle Dock, I was relieved to see a field with several large tents. Sheltered from the elements, we sampled tasty hors d’oeuvres and butter filled lobster rolls – all washed down with local beer including one named “Finest Kind” from SmuttyNose brewing company. “Finest Kind” is a Newfoundland phrase that describes things of quality – and that beer was tasty! More importantly, there seemed to be an endless supply of lobster rolls – they were delicious. This was a first-rate event and everywhere I looked, the guests were eating great food, laughing and spinning yarns with friends. It was dark when I boarded the bus to return to the dorms – I was very full of rich lobster rolls and slept like a log! 

Chatting with friends in Portsmouth – “selfies” are not my thing!

Tuesday morning was an early get-up to prepare for the NMEA Education Research and Evaluation Committee presentation and my second presentation for CaNOE (to describe lessons developed for Canada’s World Ocean and World Ocean Week). The conference kicked off the day with a panel discussion titled: New England Fisheries: Learning from Yesterday, Adapting for Tomorrow. The experienced panel included a mix of of research scientists (Andy Pershing & Erik Chapman), the co-founder of Blue Ocean Society (Jen Kennedy), and a university student who studies fisheries and aquaculture but grew up in the lobster fishery (Hattie Train). There were some serious conversations about protecting marine species, such as critically endangered Right whales, and the panel discussed the tenuous relationship between fishers and scientists. In my experience the tensions discussed are universal but, the panel demonstrated how they are working to increase the dialogue needed to make progress with endangered species and fisheries policy issues; developing trusting relationships seems crucial to this goal. I left this discussion feeling the panel had addressed many aspects required for progress in fisheries management and ocean protection with a consensus that seafarers’ knowledge, the sense of “knowing” developed by experience, requires consideration by decision makers.

Speakers on the panel (Andy, Hattie, and Jen)

After attending a few short session presentations it was time for the “Chapter Lunch” and I contributed some CaNOE swag to the international basket and strategically purchased tickets on my favorite baskets from other NMEA chapters. Luck was not on my side twice – I did not win a basket and the Ocean Literacy presentation from UNESCO’s Francesca Santoro was cancelled 🙁 In addition, the International Chapter did not win the prize for top sales of baskets – the coveted “Wicket Awesome Chapter Basket” prize. 

The Chapter Lunch and Robert Rocha, the victorious chapter leader the “awesome trophy.”

Later in the afternoon, I presented the CaNOE ocean literacy resources posted on our website’s Educational Resources Library (this is my presentation link). With a room full of colleagues, I reviewed some of CaNOE’s posted resources from Ocean Networks Canada, discussed World Ocean Day activities, and presented some of the education activities from the Lessons from Beachcombing website. I tried to pack a lot into 45 minutes – in retrospect probably too much. However, testing website lessons using phones and first-hand audience participation with ocean samples seemed to generate higher engagement. It is difficult to find the balance between transmitting information and audience participation – my next NMEA presentations will use apps such as Kahoot, Socratic or Plickers to directly initiate audience involvement and also evaluate their assimilation.

My conference day ended in a strange manner for a Canadian – I attended the presentation, “Alignment of ocean literacy to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)” (Catherine Halversen, Kurt Holland, Diana Payne, Sarah Schoedinger, & Craig Strang). This session on NGSS was important as an education researcher who will likely write for a North American audience; versus just writing for Canadian readers.

In the evening I was a bit of a selfish party-pooper – I did not attend the dance and gala. Instead, I drove to Maine to do some outlet shopping and sample more local seafood – both clams and scallops were tasty but the haddock was the fish I enjoyed the most (we do not get much haddock in Newfoundland). I returned to campus and packed up to leave – I had a flight out of Boston early in the afternoon and a presentation that ended at 10:45 (I was cutting it close!).

The final morning of the conference started with me acting as a member of the NMEA Education Research and Evaluation Committee. I was pleased to be involved with a discussion led by John Baek, Jenny East, Diana Payne, and Joanna Philippoff where we asked NMEA members in attendance to participate in a discussion about what the field knows about teaching and learning. We hoped the ideas and questions raised in this session would help to engage education researchers to help us think about how researchers’ work can be applied to ocean and coastal contexts. During the discussion, the audience provided many interesting suggestions for us and we are planning a follow-up presentation for NMEA 2020.

File photo of Education Research and Evaluation Committee in 2016 (marine-ed.org).

This blog post cannot begin to address all the things I learned at presentations and during informal conversations so, instead of a summary I will end with a suggestion. I highly recommend becoming involved with a nearby chapter of NMEA and attending the chapter or NMEA national conference. I am a member of GOMMEA and will remain a member as long as possible. I have been attending science and education conferences for over 30 years and the Durham conferences was my second NMEA national conference. Thanks to the organizing committee, my experiences in Durham were fantastic; NMEA 2017 in Charleston was also a similar experience. I would call the NMEA conference atmosphere “generative.” I found the attendees friendly, supportive, and genuinely interested in your opinions or ideas. Great education and great memories. If you are an educator who loves the ocean or you want to find some great lesson ideas consider getting involved with NMEA (and CaNOE!). I am saving for NMEA 2020 and look forward to spending a full week at the conference versus my shortened stay due to family commitments. 

All the best in 2020!

About the author

Patrick Wells

Pat is a high school science teacher (25 years) who loves taking students to the intertidal zone and on ocean cruises. On a trip to the intertidal zone Pat marvels how students experience the creatures he grew up with. The best result of these trips, or any ocean education, is when students learn to respect sea creatures and appreciate how tough it is to live in the ocean.