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San Diego Non-Profit Seeks To Transform Students’ Lives Through Science

Audio

Aired 8/25/10

Learn how the Ocean Discovery Institute is connecting urban youth with science and the environment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Statistics on science education in America are disturbing. American high school students rank in the bottom five of industrialized nations in scientific knowledge. And those numbers get even worse for students of color and from low-income backgrounds. But there's an effort underway here in San Diego to change that. It uses San Diego's glorious oceanfront environment as a natural laboratory. And it encourages kids of diverse backgrounds in City Heights to explore science, not just as a subject but as a passion and a potential career. The Ocean Discovery Institute has some very big goals. It wants to empower young people to transform their lives, their community and their world. Here to tell us how far they've progressed towards those goals are my guests. Shara Fisher (sic). She is director of the Ocean Discovery Institute. And, Shara, welcome to These Days.

SHARA FISLER (Executive Director/Founder, Ocean Discovery Institute): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Drew Talley is assistant professor at USD of Marine Science and Environmental Studies. Dr. Talley, welcome.

DR. DREW TALLEY (Assistant Professor, Marine Science and Environmental Studies, University of San Diego): Thanks. It’s great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Yajaira Nuñez is 18 years old. She’s been awarded the first Ocean Leader scholarship through the Ocean Discovery Institute. Yajaira, good morning.

YAJAIRA NUÑEZ (Ocean Discovery Institute Scholarship Winner): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Thanks for coming in.

NUÑEZ: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation. How do you think San Diego’s ocean and coastline could be used to get kids interested in science? Are you happy with the way science is being taught in school? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Yajaira, I want to start by asking you a couple of questions if that’s okay.

NUÑEZ: That’s fine.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. What did you think about science and scientists before you started at the Ocean Discovery Institute?

NUÑEZ: Well, first whenever I thought of scientists, I just thought somebody with crazy glasses and a white coat. But I always liked science. I like biology but I never really thought like I could commit to it or pursue it because I liked it but I thought it was hard and I didn’t really like – like the way it was taught or like we didn’t do a lot of hands-on activities when I’m a very like hands-on person. I like to do stuff. So I didn’t think I could do it. But after the program, like going down to Baja and doing actual research, I fell in love with science. I had a lot of fun doing research and, well, now I’m like super excited about going to USD and majoring in marine biology.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of research did you do with the Ocean Discovery Institute?

NUÑEZ: Well, we went to Baja California, Mexico, and we did research for five weeks and I was involved with the wetlands directed research. And what we did there was see how wetlands would react to climate change. And the wetland basically is a transition zone between ocean and desert and it’s a very unique area, and out of 100% here in San Diego, there’s only 7% left. So there’s a lot of restoration efforts here in San Diego to preserve wetlands. And what we want to know is how they’re going to react to climate change because global warming is happening, as you know and, yeah…

CAVANAUGH: I understand that you got involved with the Ocean Discovery Institute in 2009, is that right?

NUÑEZ: Yes, I did.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in 2008 could you have imagined yourself talking this way?

NUÑEZ: Not at all. I didn’t know what a wetland was. I didn’t know what research was. I was like very dull about science. I liked it but I didn’t think I would ever be pursuing a career in it, this field, so…

CAVANAUGH: Now I’ve read that you said when you have the opportunity of a lifetime the best thing is to hold on and not let go. Why do you think this has been an opportunity of a lifetime for you?

NUÑEZ: Well, because like I never thought I would be able to travel or do research for five weeks. It’s something I would’ve never been able to afford like ever. And just being able like to do this was like such a great opportunity for me and like once I started doing it, I really enjoyed it. I liked going out on the field. I liked doing all these things and like I realized that this is something I would like to do with my life, something I would see myself doing in the future. And it got me really excited and like once I had it, I didn’t want to let go. I took like advantage of all the opportunities they offered me. And, well, now I’m doing great. Like I have a lot of resources I could go to and I’m like super excited about doing science now.

CAVANAUGH: Yajaira, I’m going to come back to you but I want to talk a little bit to Dr. Talley and Shara. Shara Fisher’s director of the Ocean Discovery Institute, and your goal, as I read, was to just transform young lives through science. But is – it’s focused on kids who live in San Diego City Heights neighborhood. Why is that?

FISLER: Well, our organization is really focused on empowering young people, as you said, from urban and diverse communities, and City Heights is our most urban and most diverse community in the county. In fact, it’s actually one of the most diverse communities across the nation. So it has incredible challenges as far as poverty, low graduation rates, etcetera, but it also has tremendous assets as far as cultural and linguistic diversity.

CAVANAUGH: How many languages are spoken in City Heights?

FISLER: Over 30 languages are spoken in City Heights and I think we’ve had maybe over 10 in our programs.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. Now what – the idea of bringing in the ocean and marine research seems like almost a natural kind of almost like a no-brainer but it’s really such a big, intuitive leap. Why is the focus of the research on the ocean?

FISLER: Well, I think there’s a couple of reasons. I mean, number one, it’s definitely a part of our identity. I’m sure, you know, everybody out there can think about, you know, one reason why they live here is because of the ocean. It certainly builds on everyone’s natural and instinctive attraction to the sea and yet it really provides a great platform to teach every single area of science, technology, engineering, math and conservation, and so through our organization we certainly teach about ecology and marine biology but we also teach about engineering and biomechanics and molecular biology and all of these very diverse fields that provide tremendous opportunities.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 on this unique approach to introduce science to the lives of young kids in City Heights. And if you have questions about the way science is taught or about the way the ocean environment could be used to teach science, give us a call. The number again, 1-888-895-KPBS. How exactly does this program work, Shara?

FISLER: So the organization provides different programs at three different levels. First it provides programs at the community level, engaging everybody, toddlers through seniors, in science and conservation activities that are relevant to their daily lives.

CAVANAUGH: How do they do that? How do you do that?

FISLER: Well, through anything from, you know, single-day events to restoring neighborhood canyons, things that are important to people in their regular life. At the next level, we provide school-based initiatives which are really, you know, changing the way science is taught in the schools and working with teachers to provide hands-on lessons within the school system.

CAVANAUGH: Do you provide curriculum to schools? Or are they field trips kind of deals?

FISLER: A combination, so we actually go in and provide hands-on lessons in the classrooms and field experiences and also lesson plans and professional development for the teachers so they can continue that when we’re not there. And then at the very top level, we have our Ocean Leaders Initiative which Yajaira is a part of. And that’s really a series of after school and summer programs and support services that provide a pathway all the way to college and beyond to career. And so in the last year we were able to secure, in collaboration with the University of San Diego, a grant through the National Science Foundation that is enabling us to further expand this initiative to really enhance our curriculum and, of course, include a scholarship for young people to attend the university.

CAVANAUGH: Now how do you pick those students like Yajaira that are going to be the Ocean Leaders, Ocean Discovery Leaders?

FISLER: Ocean Leaders are recruited in a number of ways. First of all, we recruit kids at a young level, sixth grade or younger. High school, those kids are really recruited based on their high potential, so it’s not based on high achievement, it’s really based on high potential.

CAVANAUGH: How do you gauge potential?

FISLER: Well, that is a very hard thing to do and it’s obviously very subjective. But, you know, we look at things like has this young person shown commitment to something? I mean, it literally could be commitment to karate or video games but if they’ve been committed to it, it shows they have that capacity to be committed. Are they curious? You know, are they naturally curious? Do they want to go discover things? Those are, you know – and obviously we want them to discover the world around them and, in the process, discover themselves. Those are sort of some of the markers. And we obviously work with their parents and teachers and take recommendations as well.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go to you, Dr. Talley. And this might be a hard question and a bad question for you but do what you can with it, okay?

DR. TALLEY: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: Why is the U.S. so far behind when it comes to the sciences? What is your take on that?

DR. TALLEY: Well, boy, that is a huge question. You know, one of the big things is sort of a lack of resource and by resource I’m talking about the human resources that we need. I mean, we simply don’t have enough engineers, enough scientists, enough people in these fields, and that’s one of the reasons this is so important to try and get some of these under-represented groups involved in the sciences because that is where sort of the talent pool lies. That’s the most rapidly growing segment of our population, and if we can tap into that, I think we have a great chance of, you know, reclaiming our lead in the sciences internationally.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you all this question but I’ll start with you, Dr. Talley. What are the problems that you perceive in the way that science is taught in schools that is not engaging enough students and getting them passionate about learning more about science?

DR. TALLEY: That’s a great question. And we have, you know, there are a list of reasons why, I think, science is, especially in these underserved communities, why science is not sort of broadly absorbed by the students. It’s anywhere, you know, what we know is that best practices would be a lot of hands-on work, a lot of sort of early and continued exposure to science from the time they’re young until they’re older. What it really comes down to, all of these different issues, it’s a matter of access. In these really urban and diverse communities, they tend to be in communities that are sort of economically disadvantaged and so they don’t have access both – either access to these facilities, access to science curriculum and, importantly, access to try and help them with all the various barriers that these students face to trying to get into the sciences and get into college.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Yajaira, you said that you did like biology when you…

NUÑEZ: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …before you got involved in the Ocean Discovery Institute. But what was there about the idea of being – getting more involved in science that seemed like it was impossible?

NUÑEZ: Well, my biology class, it was a lot of just like talking and doing papers and I think the only thing I can remember that was very interesting to me was a fish dissection that we did. And like I really enjoyed it. I was like if we did more of this, I would actually be passing the class or like I would have a better grade. I was passing the class but not with a grade that I wanted. So it was like if maybe we did more stuff like this, that would engage me more and I wouldn’t get so bored. I’d be doing better. And just like maybe if like just simple things like looking through a microscope would like would have helped me engage more and that’s something that the Ocean Discovery offers. I’ve done fish dissections with them. I’ve done shark dissections, a mussel dissection, and it gets fun. Like it’s something that you like get as you’re doing it, like, okay, what’s – what’s there – what are the scales called? Or like you get like their scientific names and it’s like…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

NUÑEZ: …you understand why they’re called that way or like special features that they have, and they’re showing you as you’re doing these things. And that’s what really engaged me with them. And something that classes don’t offer maybe like is we don’t have – they don’t have the resources to do it but like just simple things like looking through a microscope would like help us more.

CAVANAUGH: Would make a big difference…

NUÑEZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …for you. Shara, what’s your take on the way that science is presented in schools typically and how that is perhaps not engaging a lot of students?

FISLER: Sure, I think Yajaira actually just brought up a really good point when she said there’s a lack of resources. I mean, I do think that the, you know, one of the biggest challenges is, you know, teachers are obviously, you know, very well intentioned and, you know, the schools are working, you know, really hard to change practices around science. But the challenge is, you know, you don’t have the experts from the scientific fields working in the schools. It’s very difficult to get materials for hands-on lessons, especially in low income schools. It’s very difficult to get opportunities to go out into the field, and when we provide a field trip to the school, sometimes it’s one of two field trips for the entire year. So, you know, really providing partnerships, actually, like this, like, you know, with Ocean Discovery Institute and University of San Diego, I think are helpful because, you know, sometimes you can’t have everything you need in one place. And so, you know, working together though, we’re really able to provide these hands-on opportunities, discovery opportunities, inquiry-based activities, you know, working with the teachers to help them develop their skills so they can do more in the future. And I think one other big thing – piece of this that also Yajaira was mentioning earlier is the access to real research. You know, real research, real conservation efforts, a lot of studies have shown and certainly our experience has shown how important this is as young people realize that they’re actually capable of truly conducting real research that’s making a difference in the worlds. And then they envision themselves in a different place and in a different – with different abilities.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you more about that because I know the Ocean Discovery Institute has contributed research to science, and I also want to take the callers who are waiting patiently online to ask questions and give their comments about this program. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We are going to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue our conversation right here on These Days on KPBS.


CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS, and we’re talking about the Ocean Discovery Institute. It’s a program that offers San Diego’s oceanfront environment as a natural laboratory to kids of diverse backgrounds in City Heights. My guests are Dr. – I’m sorry. Shara Fisler, director of the Ocean Discovery Institute. Dr. Drew Talley, he’s assistant professor at USD, Marine Science and Environmental Studies. And Yajaira Nuñez. She has been awarded the first Ocean Leaders scholarship through the Ocean Discovery Institute. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s go to the phones. Mike is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Mike, and welcome to These Days.

MIKE (Caller, La Jolla): Good morning. I was calling to comment on the problems I feel with the scientific education in schools today. And I think one of the big problems is that there’s not enough emphasis on actually teaching the logic behind the scientific method and how it works. For example, when someone claims that evolution is just a theory, all it’s really proving is that they’re not aware of what a theory really is, that it’s backed up with evidence and that it’s a hypothesis that’s been tested. And I think that it’s a major issue with, you know, you know, freshmen college students that come in and they still don’t have a full grasp of what a – the scientific method actually shows us and teaches us.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. I appreciate it, Mike. I’m wondering, Shara, the idea that Yajaira was talking about, the idea of actually doing research, do you think enough – that the idea of what research is, how scientists go about conducting it, is brought across in a regular science class as much as it should be?

FISLER: No, I mean, I definitely agree with Mike. There’s a big challenge out there as far as, you know, engaging students in the scientific process and really understanding how the scientific process works. And, you know, obviously the idea is not that a student necessarily – Let’s say Yajaira’s done research in wetlands and obviously that’s very important but, really, the broader goal for Yajaira is that she can now understand the scientific process, how it works, and then she can apply that to many other systems or processes. And I think, you know, that’s really what you want to do, is really, as Mike said, you know, teach her the root of the issue of what is this process, how does it work, why does it work this way, and how can you use it as a tool.

CAVANAUGH: And Dr. Talley, when students reach you, as assistant professor at USD, do you find that there’s sort of like this lack of a basic understanding of what science is?

DR. TALLEY: I would say that’s absolutely true. And actually that’s one of the things that at our university and in particular in our department, we work really hard on trying to teach the theories behind science and the scientific concepts because, you know, in today’s society, in some ways information is cheap, it’s easy to Google something or to get access to information. But it’s what you do with that information and how you actually process it, that’s the really tough part and that’s what the scientific method is all about. So I think that’s one reason why I’m so excited to be doing projects where we’re engaging these students in authentic research that’s getting published in journals, it’s getting – you know, we have a book chapter published on – not on the education part but actually on the science that these kids have gone and gathered data for and helped with the analysis of.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your questions and comments about San Diego’s Ocean Discovery Institute at 1-888-895-5727. Deborah’s on the line, driving on I-5. Good morning, Deborah, and welcome to These Days.

DEBORAH (Caller, Mobile): Oh, hello, Maureen. I am a member of the Producers Club and I contribute a hundred dollars a month to KPBS. I don’t have a lot of money. I drive an old car. But when I made the decision that I was going to contribute a chunk of money every month to a good cause, I gave it a lot of thought and this program is exactly the reason that I’m glad that I do this because even though very often, Maureen, you have guests on your show and I think why is she doing this? It’s a stupid interview. It’s a waste of my money. But I’m telling you, it’s nowhere near a problem when I think about exactly what you’re doing with this show. This talks about how important it is to inspire young people. It inspires me to know that somebody’s doing this. And I am thrilled and pleased to have the privilege to be a member of the Producers Club.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Deborah, I’m glad we hit one out of the park for you today. Thank you so much for calling in. Scott is calling from Otay Mesa. Good morning, Scott. Welcome to These Days.

SCOTT (Caller, Otay Mesa): How you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Just great, thank you.

SCOTT: Hey, yeah, my question was what sort of job placement do these kids get after they go through this program? And does UCSD (sic) help them with future job placement or does this organization that they’re going – that they’re preparing themselves for university afterwards, do they give them job placement afterwards? Or are they – I mean, are they kind of left to their own devices to search for work by themselves?

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Now, just to be clear, Yajaira is going to USD. And, Shara, has anyone come along far enough in this program to actually be getting job assistance?

FISLER: Yeah, that’s a great question because, you know, our organization is obviously growing with the age of the students as they are getting older and graduating. And we had our first cohort actually graduate and, in fact, one of our students, Tram Nguyen, just graduated from Berkeley in Biology and she has been placed actually at our organization in a year-long fellowship to lead our environmental stewardship efforts in City Heights. So that’s really exciting. But, yes, you know, one of the things that we do with our programs is provide a pathway to careers so career support services, everything from internships to job shadows to informational interviews, fellowships, etcetera. You know, fellowships that have been placed, literally, all over the world, and it’s something that we’re going to be expanding greatly as our young people, you know, continue – as the cohorts continue to graduate. And then, of course, I’ll defer to Drew but at USD, they certainly have, you know, a lot of work on, you know, what happens after college and so as our first Ocean Leaders scholar just enters her first year, you know, she’s starting to think about these kinds of things and really exploring different career paths and that’ll be something that, you know, obviously she – It’s not too early to start right now as a freshman…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FISLER: …in college to start to look at that.

CAVANAUGH: What is USD’s program when it comes to seeing kids in the sciences get jobs in the sciences?

DR. TALLEY: Yeah, we actually have a lot of supports in place for that. One of the big things is actually within my department, I’m in charge of the internship program, so we – students get credit for working in the field and we consider it an opportunity to kind of try out different things that they’re considering as career opportunities. And one of the things that I often tell the students is, to be honest, I’m almost as happy when they come back from an internship that they felt was a disaster and that they hated because if nothing else, it helps them figure out, you know, it helps prevent them potentially from going down a career path that would be unsatisfying and unhappy for them. So we get opportunities to sort of both counsel them and direct them into trying out these different opportunities.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Pete’s calling from Bay Park. By the way, we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Good morning, Pete. Welcome to These Days.

PETE (Caller, Bay Park): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I’m really enjoying the discussion today.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

PETE: And my question was how can I get involved in this? There’s such a big pool of marine professionals in San Diego and a lot of people that would like to, I think, help but I’d be interested to know how we can help.

CAVANAUGH: Shara.

FISLER: Well, we have lots of ways to help, Pete. We’d love to get you involved. We actually – If you come to our website at you go to the ‘get involved’ page on there, you can learn about our volunteer opportunities. We have volunteer opportunities for anybody, and we also have a special STEM volunteer corps for those in science, technology, engineering and math fields. And so that’s the best way to start, you know, is to contact us. And as we learn more about you then we can learn more about the best fit and the best way we can, you know, leverage your expertise.

CAVANAUGH: How about kids who go into the Ocean Discovery Institute and find out that while they may be interested in science, they’re not that interested in ocean science or marine research or – What – what’s their outlet?

FISLER: Sure, so, I mean, definitely our organization is not about, you know, creating, you know, 100% marine biologists. I mean, it’s wonderful if they do go in the marine biology field but, really, we’re there to, again, prep them for, you know, careers in molecular biology, engineering and we have a lot of students actually studying engineering right now in college, you know, all the diversity fields. And the ocean, again, is just really a platform. It’s a great vehicle for getting engaged, learning these different principles and then going on to different fields. And, you know, some of our students will not go on to careers in the sciences at all. They’ll go on to become business professionals, etcetera, but, again, they can still be a leader in science and conservation because they will think about science and conservation in different ways and, perhaps in their business, implement different practices.

CAVANAUGH: That is such a wide scope for both science and conservation, especially in today’s green markets. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Ian is calling from Solana Beach. Good morning, Ian.

IAN (Caller, Solana Beach): Good morning, Maureen. I have a question for your panel and that is, is there any movement to encourage science clubs, after school science clubs? When I was growing up, I had my little laboratory and I learned, even though I’m now a mechanical engineer, I learned more about chemistry that has stuck with me throughout my life from experience with inorganic chemistry at that time.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Ian. And would you like to take that, Shara?

FISLER: Sure, well, I mean, you know, we – our organization provides after school programs…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FISLER: …which aren’t necessarily a club but it functions much like a club. You know, students belong to it. Once an Ocean Leader, we say, always an Ocean Leader. And there are a variety of after school programs that they can get involved in and, certainly, much in a similar way to a club. But actually a few years ago students of ours created a club at the high school that I know Yajaira’s really familiar with so…

NUÑEZ: Oh, so, yeah. Three years ago, BAHÍA students – I believe it was Rudy, Rudy Watagas (sp), who actually started the Eco Club at Hoover High School.

CAVANAUGH: Eco Club.

NUÑEZ: It’s a Eco Club, and what they do is they focus on canyon cleanups. They connect – they collect cans and bottles. They set boxes in each classroom and they go collect them every Wednesday, and every Wednesday they have a meeting talking about what they could do, whether it’s like a – like trash pickup, canyon cleanup or going to recycle. But they’re always doing something to help the environment. And last year we also – like Rudy, obviously, he graduated and another Ocean Leader took up the president role, which was Daisy, Daisy Mercado, so there’s a lot of Ocean Leaders involved with the Eco Club and it’s nice to know that students from Ocean Discovery are the ones that started that in Hoover.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Talley, let me ask you more about the Ocean Discovery research. You mentioned that there’s actually been research published that students involved in this program have done.

DR. TALLEY: Yeah, there has. I mean, even just speaking about one part of the Ocean Leaders program, which is what Yajaira just referred to, the BAHÍA program. So down in Mexico every summer, we spend several weeks with these kids at a field station doing actual scientific research. Broadly, what it’s been split up into is Dr. Theresa Talley, my wife, has a project working on wetland diversity and how the diversity of plants might buffer the effects of climate change. I am continuing – so with these students, I am actually continuing a data set that’s over two decades long, started by the late Dr. Gary Polis, looking at how the marine system interacts with and affects food webs on islands and on land generally. And then we also have a project with some NOAA scientists working on looking at ways to reduce bi-catch of sea turtles in the fisheries down in Mexico. So there’s some real authentic research being done and these students, when they leave BAHÍA, you know, they are far from done with it. They help us analyze data. We put up – if they present papers at international scientific meetings. So it’s the whole deal from research design all the way through to presentation.

CAVANAUGH: And how much would that cost a student to go down to BAHÍA and accompany – do this research?

FISLER: Sure, so we say all of our programs are tuition free, however they are not commitment free. So the cost is really a very strong commitment to growing themselves as an individual and to the organization. And so they have, you know, a huge level of commitment that they have to meet as far as attendance and service to the community, you know, certainly to improve their grades, those types of things. So that’s really their cost. And now the real cost is $5,212.00 per Ocean Leader per year, so that gives you an idea of what the actual cost is. But when we look at return on investment, by the time these young people graduate from college and enter the workforce, there’ll be a 10 to 1 return on investment.

CAVANAUGH: And so basically that actual monetary cost is not something the students pick up, it’s the Ocean Discovery Institute picks that up.

FISLER: Absolutely. We’re 100% grant and individual contribution supported.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Shree (sp) is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Shree. Welcome to These Days.

SHREE (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. I think it’s a wonderful program to get students involved in science at an early age. And my comment is, I see a broad cultural trend in the U.S. where to study math or science is not cool. It’s considered, you know, like, oh, you know, you must be a nerd. You know, this kind of stigma which is in stark contrast to developing countries like India or China where it’s very cool, it’s glamorous if you’re studying, you know, one of these disciplines. And as a result—and I work in the high tech field—and, you know, I, myself, immigrated from India and a vast majority of people are foreign immigrants, which is, you know, fine but I see this trend. It kind of – I don’t understand why.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, and I understand your point. Yajaira, have you escaped the nerd label?

NUÑEZ: Well, with the program, obviously we do a lot of green effort projects and I’ve been called a tree-hugger. I don’t mind. But so far as a nerd, I get comments like are you going to be a scientist? I was like, well, marine biology is considered like – it’s considered a science so, yeah, I would be a scientist. They’re like are you going to wear those crazy glasses and a white robe? And I’m like, no, I’m going to wear regular clothes. And they’re like – just things like that but like my friends are pretty good about like not making fun of me and like if they do, they’re like – like it’s not in a bad way. And everybody has been supporting me like very like well. Like they’re all very nice about it, and they’re excited for me. So nobody’s been mean about it. So…

CAVANAUGH: I wonder – I wonder, Dr. Talley, is the nerd stigma something that you run into as you teach your students science at USD?

DR. TALLEY: Well, what I would say is that this sort of speaks to a broader perceptual issue, which is one of the things that we struggle against very much, and that is, especially being someone who comes from marine science and oceanography, it is a very homogenous field. If you look at most oceanographers, they’re mostly like me, white, middle-aged, balding men. And that’s one of the things that is starting to shift but a lot of it is just perception. If these students – if they don’t see someone who looks like them, who has their background, who speaks like them, who is also a scientist, then they don’t have the – they don’t see themselves in that role and that’s one of the things we work really hard at, is trying to make sure that they see that, you know, you can do this, too. And it’s one thing for me to go in front of a classroom of high school kids and say, hey, you could be a scientist, too. But imagine how much more powerful it is when Yajaira has graduated from USD and she’s now a marine scientist coming back to the kids from her high school, at Hoover High School, and saying, hey, look, I did this. I’m now a practicing marine biologist. You could do this, too.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s one of your goals, isn’t it, Shara?

FISLER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Drew brings up a good point there that’s, you know, half of our staff this summer down in Baja were actually, you know, graduates of the program and that makes a huge difference. And I think also it’s like, you know, Shree was saying, is there a cultural shift to think of this as a nerdy field or whatever. And I think you have to create culture. You know, you can’t let culture create itself. You have to create it and in the organization that’s something that we’re constantly focused on is creating a culture that supports that. And, you know, I always find it so much fun, like, you know, this summer we had a Stanford professor who studies biomechanics, you know, it’s mostly physics and math. And, you know, down this summer, if you would’ve seen our students on their, you know, 40 minutes of free time, they’re spending it working out math problems on the board, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

FISLER: And everybody wanting to elbow in and thinking that that’s the showing – you know, kind of showing up each other and, you know, sort of having little competitions around that. And I think, you know, if you look in that group, you know, they think that these are the cool people and that these scientists are the cool people. I think we – I sat down at lunch with Drew one day and there were like three different scientists and a student sat down with us and they said, I’m at the cool table. And the scientist looked at me and said, this is the first time ever.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all so much. And congratulations on going to USD, Yajaira.

NUÑEZ: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Yajaira Nuñez has been my guest along with Dr. Drew Talley and Shara Fisler. And we’ve been talking about the Ocean Discovery Institute. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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