Young people are getting a lot of messages about the many ways humans are damaging the Earth. From classroom lectures, to pop culture, to dinner conversations, to social media, they hear the steady refrain: Things are bad. Adults have failed them. It’s up to them to fix it. I believe they are up to the task – if we help them understand why they should care. This is where a show-don’t-tell approach works best.

I have devoted my entire adult life to teaching kids about the ocean with the belief that if they understand the role it plays in protecting the planet – and all the people who live here – they will have a keen interest in doing all they can to care for it. Nearly 40 years ago, this philosophy led me to the Acadia Institute of Oceanography in Seal Harbor.

Each summer, more than 200 middle and high school students from across the country and around the globe show up eager to examine marine life, study sea birds, understand ocean processes and, of course, “dive” into the sea. We prepare kids for careers in marine science. As educators and researchers, they teach others to care about the ocean while working to keep it viable and productive.

In the four decades I have been at Acadia Institute of Oceanography, kids have not changed much. They love the ocean – and once they understand how important it is, they want to protect it. However, they are becoming increasingly savvy about how they plan to do that. Where they once came to our program with an interest in studying plankton, they now want to know how higher levels of CO2 in the ocean are affecting plankton and what that means for other marine life as well as life on land. They are not only interested in the connection between climate change and ocean health, but also want to study strategies for communicating that connection to others.

Programs that give kids hands-on opportunities to learn about the ocean and their role in protecting it are the best way to ensure they grow up wanting to continue to safeguard the resource for future generations. The Biden administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative, which aims to protect 30 percent of the nation’s lands, water and ocean by 2030, can help build a workforce interested in protecting the health of the ocean.

The United States has one of the largest ocean territories in the world, but only 3 percent of the U.S. ocean is fully protected and just 20 percent is highly protected. Nearly all of this area is located in remote areas of the Pacific Ocean. To ensure budding oceanographers – along with the rest of us – can continue to experience the wonders of the ocean, we must call on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to prioritize placing at least 30 percent of our ocean in fully or highly protected marine protected areas by 2030.

It is exciting to see the need to increase opportunities for outdoor recreation highlighted in America the Beautiful. To encourage the next generation of ocean stewards, we must also prioritize a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation that ensures equitable access to marine resources.

I regularly find myself across the table (or lately on a Zoom) with someone who tells me they first connected with the ocean when they were a student at the Acadia Institute of Oceanography. Now they are scientists, economists, Hill staffers, researchers, teachers, geologists, environmental lawyers and others who have made a career out of caring for the ocean.

Done right, America the Beautiful will not only protect critical land and water while making the planet more resilient to climate change but also foster the conservation ethic needed to protect our ocean and allow all communities to thrive far into the future.

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