Inspired to change the world

Danielle Tentschert, of Ocean Connectors, speaks to a group of fifth graders from National City, California getting an exciting chance to see whales on the San Diego Bay. Courtesy photo: Anna Mar/Ocean Connectors

Southern California partnership focuses on iconic marine species to educate and connect youth in Pacific coastal communities

By Lisa Cox
January 17, 2018

On a warm mid-morning day, city-dwelling sixth graders speckled the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge with binoculars in hand. This wasn’t an average field trip—these students participated in an Ocean Connectors excursion, a partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that began eight years ago.

This organization, founded by executive director Frances Kinney in 2007, inspires urban students to take small actions that have a big impact on wildlife and the refuge.

“You can give them all the science and facts, but if they don’t experience it firsthand, it just won’t matter to them,” said Kinney.

Ocean Connectors founder and director Frances Kinney shows the students from Olivewood Elementary School in National City, California, how to look at slide samples under the solar-microscopes. Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

Ocean Connectors focuses on case studies of iconic marine species to educate, inspire and connect youth in Pacific coastal communities of the U.S. and Mexico. Kinney, who speak Spanish fluently, explained that these lessons include sea turtles and marine pollution in fourth grade; California gray whales for sustainable seafood and bycatch in fifth grade; black brants for coastal development/habitat loss in sixth grade; and new this year for seventh grade: thresher sharks for overfishing.

In sixth grade, they get to come to the refuge and plant native vegetation. Conservation ethics are integrated into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curriculum so teachers can accomplish beyond what’s required in Next Generation Science Standards.

The 95 percent Latino students who participate typically come from low income communities with the highest obesity rates in the county of San Diego, California. Scientists and rangers let the students run around and have fun, while encouraging them to think outside the box on how they might help with changes in the environment or plastics pollution.

Students are encouraged to play and strengthen friendships outdoors on the refuge. “I've seen these kids really solidify their connections with nature here on the refuge,” said Chantel Jimenez, urban refuge coordinator at the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

While at the refuge, students see things they have never seen before such as alligator lizards, black-necked stilts, ospreys and even sea lions in their local watershed, the Otay River.

The realizations these students have from looking into microscopes, planting vegetation and spotting wildlife is evident in their conversations with teachers, rangers and scientists.

“One day while a class was getting off the whale watching boat,” Kinney remembers, “one of the quieter fifth graders looked up at me and said, ‘Ms. Kinney, this was the best day of my life.’”

His teacher mentioned to Kinney that life at home was really tough with both of his parents in jail. “Even if we can just take kids out of that situation for one day and get their minds off these challenges…it’s really a win,” Kinney said.

“I've seen these kids really solidify their connections with nature here on the refuge,” said Chantel Jimenez, urban refuge coordinator at the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, who has fostered this partnership on the refuge since the beginning. “One of the best parts of my job is seeing a student pull a new plant out of its pot and notice bound-up roots for the first time, or when they name their plants and say they'll come back to visit it.”

Knowing that students may not have the resources to learn about conservation, Kinney feels it’s our responsibility to build this awareness for the next generation.

“It’s a big moment when they see habitats connect, like for instance rivers and the oceans,” said Kinney. “For them to witness that kind of life in our local waterways, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, that’s the river that we drive by on the freeway,’ is really impactful because it illustrates how pollution travels through their watershed.”

Students from an elementary school from National City, California, search for shorebirds in the Otay River on San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

Another unique aspect of this program is the knowledge exchange between students in San Diego and Nayarit, Mexico. They first become acquainted as “pen pals,” and then teach each other through video messages, letters and artwork about different coastal conservation topics. This helps them connect their actions with potential consequences such as plastics in the ocean, which leads to greater awareness in a community that is lacking it, said Kinney.

She hopes for even broader changes.

“A lot of us are so removed because we live in cities, not in wild spaces,” she said. “We can’t physically help these animals, but we can change our behavior. We can be more mindful of our trash and more respectful of animals - like not squishing spiders in your house. I think it’s this broad shift that needs to happen, and I hope that I’m affecting that.”

It certainly has impacted eighth grader Erenice Prieto, who was a sixth grader from National City, California, when she was involved with Ocean Connectors.

“We used to be one of those families that threw trash out the car window and didn’t care where it ended up,” said Prieto who was so affected by what she learned that she started volunteering for Ocean Connectors. “It made me realize that I need to help the world be a better place, especially for animals. I want to be a role model for the students I went to school with.”

At the end of each year, students share pledges out loud in front of their class and make promises to save wildlife. The student pledges are then evaluated by the Ocean Connectors to determine the overall program impact.

Southern California urban refuge coordinator Chantel Jimenez teaches students from Olivewood Elementary School in National City, California, about the California native species they will be planting. Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

For the 2016-2017 school years, over 2,500 students in grades four to seven in National City and an additional 1,200 students in Mexico have connected with local wildlife and made a pledge to help. Student knowledge increased by 75 percent and environmental behaviors improved by 35 percent.

On the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Ocean Connectors students planted 874 native plants, removed 12 cubic yards of invasive weeds and distributed 3,594 pounds of mulch.

“Ultimately, I hope this program changes the landscape for how people view our environment, to see it as something to treasure and protect, versus just a resource to use up,” said Kinney. “I’m really hopeful Ocean Connectors inspires our students to be conservation leaders in the future.”

Students enjoying their refuge field trip have a stunning backdrop of the downtown San Diego skyline. The solar salt ponds in the middle ground are also a part of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and attract tens of thousands of migratory terns in the spring and summer months. Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS


The partnership between the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Ocean Connectors is funded by the SoCal Urban Wildlife Refuge Project. For more information, please visit:


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Lisa Cox

About the writer...

Lisa Cox is a public affairs specialist for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Her lifelong passion is to educate people about endangered species and their habitats and inspire them to take action. She is also a fire public information officer and most recently responded to the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara. In her free time she loves backpacking the Sierra Nevada’s with her friends and her dog, Lexi.

More stories by Lisa:

Starting a new life: Immigrant children connect with nature in their new home

Once vanished, rare butterfly reintroduced on San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: When Survival Depends On Keeping Predators