The Coral Project is Saving Our Seas

Palm Beach Day Academy’s The Coral Project, which airs on PBS this weekend, is the future of environmental conservation and activism

Protecting the Earth starts in your own backyard—and, as a group of local middle schoolers are proving, there’s no minimum age requirement. Enter the Coral Project, a STEAM initiative at Palm Beach Day Academy made possible by a grant from the Annette Urso Rickel Foundation.

After biology teacher Ashley Hollern screened the Emmy Award–winning documentary Chasing Coral, her students were hooked on the topic of coral reefs and their global decline. With help from The Reef Institute and Coral Restoration Foundation, the eighth and ninth graders transformed an underutilized storage closet into a coral nursery, complete with photosynthetic lighting systems and lab-grade tanks they assembled themselves and filled with seawater.

Through the Coral Project, students are able to continue studying a worldwide issue in a personal context. The overall aim of the program is to conduct research and bring awareness to the gravity of reef bleaching at home and abroad. To accomplish the latter, students mobilized history and video production teacher Jonathan Paine, who’s filming a documentary on their project that will air in fall 2020 on PBS.

Photo by Richard Tummon

Note: Watch the the documentary on Saturday, September 19 at 5:30 p.m. (WXEL), Wednesday, September 23 at 7:30 p.m. (WPBT), and Sunday, September 27 at 3:30 p.m. (WPBT). 

“We wanted to take an actual global issue and empower these kids to see that they can make a real difference if they take it seriously and are engaged, and they’ve just become incredibly passionate about this whole process,” says Paine. “Whether it’s coral or another global issue, [it’s about] the idea of empowering the children that they can make a difference.”

Photo by Richard Tummon

In April 2019, the students spent a week at Cape Eleuthera Institute, a marine science facility where they worked alongside researchers and learned how to elevate their own efforts. “It was amazing to validate that what we are doing is critical, and that we are participating in vital research in real time,” says Hollern.

During the school year, students measure the growth of their assigned coral fragment and maintain its aquatic environment, collecting data under the guidance of Hollern and Reef Institute scientists. They hope to eventually receive clearance to plant their spawns in Florida’s oceans, replenishing the state’s dwindling offshore reefs.

Photo by Jasmine Lotfi

“This is a perfect way to show kids that it’s just not all bookwork,” Hollern says. “Kids in the future, in the next 50 years, are going to really need critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and I think this is a way to help them build those. They’re exposed to situations where they have to really think and pull [from] different content areas. It’s not science class—it’s science and math and English and history.”

The Coral Project unites the students’ various skill sets—photography, marketing, mathematics, writing, entrepreneurship, visual arts—for a common cause, demonstrating that no matter what they bring to the table, the important part is showing up. 

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