Getting to the HeART of Teaching Marine Conservation

by Kerry Hynes

I don’t understand.  This is too hard. Why are we learning this?”  These are just a few of the phrases that I hear in my classroom that force me to stop, take a deep breath, and remind myself that, yes, I am going to get through this lesson.  As a teacher in 2018, I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Every single day, educators take on the task of fostering students’ learning and increasing achievement in a variety of venues.  And guaranteed, as a teacher, every single day you will come across challenges that make that task even more difficult than it already is.  Limited resources, varied abilities, language barriers, and disinterest are a few elements that can deter every effort that you have to teach a strong lesson.  It can be tiresome, frustrating, and downright exasperating when it seems as if there is no success in sight.

Engagement and Conservation

When I was assigned to teach a conservation and sustainability themed course this year to elementary school students, I was plagued with the thought of how I would be able to make the content accessible for all of my students, especially when they had never been exposed in depth to these topics.  From experience, I have noted that many students associate negative attitudes with science, which makes sense due to the abstract nature and complex content of the subject [i]. Effective learners also need projects that advance their feelings of aptitude, permits them to form connections with others, gives them a sense of self-sufficiency, and advances prospects for creativity and self-expression [ii]. In turn, this can allow for greater engagement, thus creating a student who will display enthusiasm, effort, commitment to the task, and concentration. It is vital to guarantee lesson resources that relate to students’ lives and emphasize ways education can be practical.

Specifically, with regards to science, conservation-based programs have shown that participating adolescents are able to develop more moralistic attitudes toward the environment and increase positive lifestyle changes [iii]. I had the virtuous voice inside my head reminding me just how meaningful this sort of course could be in helping my students develop those environmentally sensitive attitudes, a growth that could be beneficial in leading them to understand their important role as stakeholders in conservation efforts. So not only did the content need to be accessible, but students had to become engaged with what they were learning in order for it to be applicable and produce tangible benefits to society.  No pressure.

Now the question arose. How was I supposed to take this increasingly important material and transfer it to not only the minds, but hearts, of kids, many of whom were English language learners and students with disabilities? They have as much of a right and obligation to become global and environmental citizens.  But how do you do that despite these challenges?


The Case for Art and Science

For me, success came with the incorporation of art.  I developed lessons that In order to further develop a sense of success and allow students opportunities to work in ways in which they find their strengths, nontraditional forms of teaching have begun to emerge in the classroom as ways to engage. Multi-modal studies, which include art, allow students to engage with the curriculum in a different way so that they can examine and make meaning through all types of mediums, including graffiti, pictures, music, and gestures [iv]. Art can be a supplementary tool to teaching conservation, in that it allows individuals to become engaged with visual representations that are not as overwhelming in the sense of requiring an extensive amount of background knowledge.

Since emotions also play an integral role in our actions and everyday deeds, the arts present a way for people to form an emotional attachment and help reach new audiences and  can play a positive role in changing behaviors that affect the environment [v]. Mediums such as the visual arts, poetry and music offer a vehicle to address the public not only on important issues, but in a way in which it can connect to emotions, beliefs, and attitudes [vi]. Presenting facts alone is less likely to produce a long term outcome that changes behaviors and outlook on issues [vii], whereas the incorporation of arts can lead to the long-term retention of retaining of the content long-term as well as a method to motivate innovation [viii].  Especially with students who don’t speak English as their first language, or need alternative pathways to comprehend information, visuals communicate in a way that words cannot.


Teaching Marine Conservation

When it came to teaching a unit on the threats surrounding marine life, I decided to try to use art as one of the main mediums for conveying information.  Despite living in an urban setting, there are many marine species that live or migrate through the our waters surrounding the city. Threats such as beach litter, loose fishing constraints, oil leaks, and improper disposal have been cited as some of the main causes of marine pollution and litter [ix]. With marine pollution being increasingly associated with decreasing aquatic populations, it is imperative that action and knowledge is increased to save these species.

Being that my school is in an urban setting, many students didn’t realize the variety of animals that were directly being impacted by marine litter and pollution only a few miles away.  However,since many visit local beaches during the summer, as many are visitors at local beaches, I wanted them to understand the connection that they each have to the issues of marine litter and pollution.  Many tend to bring many items with them such as coolers, food and beverage, and blankets, which are disposed or left at the end of their visit on the sand away from trash receptacles. Any amount of garbage and litter that is left on the public beaches is detrimental to the wildlife when left to be blown away or very, very slowly break down.  There are many negative effects of this apathy for the natural world, some of which include disease, suffocation, infection, and ingestion of plastics and other types of litter, as well as entanglement in various packaging and disposed netting [x].

In order to teach about this topic, I formed educational centers that students were able to rotate to throughout the lesson, each with a different set of resources that focused on various subcategories of marine conservation.  These centers used various art forms as the main methods of communication. For example, political and nonpolitical cartoons were displayed to illuminate the effects of oil leaks on habitat and seabirds. Paintings depicting the ocean with tons of man made debris floating around taught about the physical litter that winds up in the water, as well as the threats of entanglement, and ingestion.  Songs and performance art pieces were also shown to educate my students about the dangers to biodiversity and vast effects that our actions can have on the environment.

After students learned about threats to marine life, their task was to create a work of art that would educate the public on the issues of marine pollution  or explain ways in which they could assist in conservation efforts. Since many of my students are able to access information more readily (both in terms of engagement and understanding) through artwork, I decided to have them communicate the knowledge that they acquired to others through some of the same mediums.  Their task was to create a work of art that would educate the public on the issues of marine pollution and litter or explain ways in which they could assist in conservation efforts.   Since that technique was effective in engaging students, I figured that others who weren’t inclined to go out on their own to research marine conservation could learn through similar, appealing methods.  And you know what? It worked.

It seems as though art can bring out the heart in science.

Kerry Hynes is a STEAM educator in an elementary school and assists in running a Makers Lab which focuses on sustainability and conservation. She is a graduate of Manhattan College and is receiving a Masters degree in biology from Miami University in conjunction with Project Dragonfly and the Wildlife Conservation Society.





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[iii] Jacobson, S. K., Mcduff, M. D., & Monroe, M. C. (2007). Promoting Conservation through the Arts: Outreach for Hearts and Minds. Conservation Biology, 21(1), 7-10. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00596.x

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[vi] Jacobson, S. K. (2009). Communication skills for conservation professionals. Second edition. Island Press, Washington, D.C.,

[vii]  Inoa, R., Weltsek, G., Tabone, C. (2014). A study on the relationship between theater
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[viii] Gurnon, D., J. Voss-Andreae, and J. Stanley. (2013). Integrating art and science in undergraduate education. PLoS Biology 11(2).

[ix] Zettler, E.R., Mincer, T.J., Amaral-Zettler, L.A. (2013). Life in the “Plastisphere”: Microbial Communities on Plastic Marine Debris. Environmental Science and Technology, 47 (13): 7137-7146.

[x] Kraus, G., & Diekmann, R. (2017). Impact of Fishing Activities on Marine Life. Handbook on Marine Environment Protection, 79-96. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-60156-4_4