Creating learning experiences about the ocean is easy to do if you live near an ocean, can point to it, or lead students to an exhibit where they can see and touch marine life. But what do you do if the ocean is hundreds of miles away? How can you make the ocean relevant to students who may never see or hear waves crash against a rocky coastline?
Today we will address these questions with Captain Suzan Wallace.
Captain Suzan Wallace is a US Coast Guard licensed Captain, a science illustrator, and national board certified visual arts educator with 23 years in the public schools. She’s been teaching sailing and connecting young & old folks to the ocean in creative and exciting ways for over 30 years. Captain Wallace finds ways to integrate the arts into every environmental education program.
Please welcome Captain Suzan Wallace!
ARTPLANTAE: Captain Wallace, thank you for participating in this EE Week discussion about making Ocean Connections. What set in motion your passion for the ocean?
CAPTAIN WALLACE: Thank you for inviting me to share my passion for Environmental Education and the Maritime Arts.
First, I owe my love of water environments to my parents, who raised me on and around the Great Lakes. In between their busy lives as public school educator/coach and nurse, they found time to sail, dive and cruise with us five kids. It was on those precious summer voyages to distant islands that helped grow my love of the inland sea. However, I was also witness to the dramatic effect people and cities have on watersheds…and watching in horror as my hometown Cuyahoga River started on fire due to the amount of pollution the local industries were pouring into it. This single incident fueled my passion for protecting the environment from human carelessness. As a child, I wrote a letter to President Nixon, telling him of the incident and he wrote me back, asking that I become an environmental witness and watchdog for conservation issues. The sailing lifestyle allowed for this intimate relationship with the sea environment to grow within me…..and “we protect the things we love”.
AP: How long have you been working as a scientific illustrator? What type of marine illustration work have you created?
CAPT. WALLACE: I have always felt my science illustration skills grew from my habit of visualizing concepts within all my school reports and class assignments as a youngster. This filtered down into every job I had growing up. Working in a greenhouse gave me the opportunity to illustrate plant informational signage and conservation reports. Upon graduation from college, I started a Marine Graphics business, working with yacht owners, marina operators and folks in “green” industries. Eventually I noticed a steady decline in seafaring arts traditions and began focusing my efforts on more educational outlets. Revitalizing these traditions through the Maritime Art forms of Scrimshaw Graphics/Carving, Illustrated Captain’s Logs and Marlinspike, we were able to help preserve and inspire marine environmental issues in activities with schools, camps, festivals, university and museum venues.
AP: You have experiences with the ocean many teachers do not have. How do you draw from your experiences to teach your students about the ocean?
CAPT. WALLACE: Interestingly, all towns across America have water flowing through them….those “watersheds” all flow to the OCEAN. So whatever is happening to the water in your town, is also happening on a grander scale, to the OCEANS. Growing up inland in the midwest, “up a creek”, I was able to put together how water all flows down stream and eventually to the ocean. So the devastating effects on my river by industry, set an example for me on the human impact. Over the past 30 years I have lived on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and have been witness to how humans make impact. When the children ask “real” questions, I can give them eyewitness accounts of what is happening, or refer them to fellow sailors across the world who are eyewitnesses to what is happening!
AP: Since many teachers cannot draw upon the same experiences that comes with spending years at sea, how can teachers create visual learning experiences for students that go beyond creating marine life out of construction paper and spending large amounts of money buying activities and visuals at a biological supply house?
CAPT. WALLACE: It is important as a natural science illustrator to document, understand and convey “real” knowledge about a species. The animal kingdom is a part of every school curriculum, and it only makes sense to seize the opportunity to investigate not just what an animal looks like, but to understand their habitat and how they interact within it. One particular project we do is called Tesselling Biomes, where the students have to create an animal sculpture (paper pulp clay) and place it within it’s natural habitat contained within a 3D box (poster board) created by tessellating shapes. Bringing home the metaphor of all things are connected….the web of life.
I also introduce the plight of the sea turtle by retelling an actual expedition experience we had on an island off the Carolina coast. As I tell the story, I am sculpting (modeling oil clay) a baby sea turtle in my hands, of course to size, and then place it in a tray of sand to represent a “boil”….then my students try it. The interesting part is that the story is really about a baby sea turtle whose shell had a rare deformity in the shape of a cashew and no matter how hard he tried to get to the water, his congenital deformity caused him to turn in circles in the sand…..even falling down into a ghost crab hole…(yes he did make it to the water)..of course for the little ones, this is a lesson on perseverance.
AP: You have excellent suggestions about how to create several layers of learning when teaching about the world’s oceans. Let’s say, though, a school lacks an Internet connection and cannot provide learning opportunities complete with sound and video. When ocean experiences can only revolve around books and posters, how can teachers create lively experiences without actually connecting live to outside resources?
CAPT. WALLACE: There are MANY wonderful books about sea life, and as more authors are becoming “green”, there are so many more options. The Environmental Education Week website has a wonderful list of resource books. The accessibility of multi-media downloads is absolutely wonderful today, but in years past, I have used both video, photography and film making to help re-tell the story. One aspect of Art Education 101, is the concept of motivation….we actively plan how to motivate our students. The Arts have a secret weapon….it’s called “emotional impact”. We use stories, poems, visuals, music, paintings, sculptures to help us evoke a sense of wonder and compassion.
But I cannot say how important actual experience will turn the tide in teaching about a subject like the OCEANS. When I first moved to the Carolinas 23 years ago, I lived inland in farmland. So I signed up for a summer staff development opportunity called OPERATION Pathfinder that was supported by Sea Grant. There are numerous workshops/grants that offer inland teachers these opportunities.
AP: The world has been watching events unfold in Japan as a result of the large earthquake and resulting tsunami. Have you ever experienced the effects of a tsunami during any of your travels? Is there anything the public should know about tsunamis that they have not yet been told? Or, is there anything about tsunamis that the public simply doesn’t get because of their limited experience with them?
CAPT. WALLACE: I have not actually been witness to a true tsunami, (have experienced many huge waves & hurricane tides). I take great interest in the comparison of those that use the ocean as a resource and those whose lives revolve around it. I am fascinated by documented maritime gypsy cultures that have an intuitive sense of the ocean and take action for safety well ahead of the tsunami’s impact. I believe, these cultures are “in touch” with the Oceans, and it saddens me that so many land-based cultures have lost this sensitivity.
In order to share the experience of a tsunami, I would have students build a sand castle (or other man-made material) structure and simulate a wave event in a sand box or pile.
AP: Recently I browsed through a sixth-grade earth science textbook. References to the ocean were made in discussions about plate tectonics, currents, water density, ecosystems, and food webs. There are no doubt an endless number of stories that could be told about our oceans. What do you think K-12 students should be learning about the ocean that they are not learning from standard classroom textbooks?
CAPT. WALLACE: We live on an Ocean Planet! Humans are so terrestrial, they forget that the majority of our planet and life is water. It is the cycles of recycled water, the flow of water, the cleansing of water, the refreshing of water, the replenishment of water and the water that is found within us that is all connected. The smallest micro-organism to the largest organism on the planet, cohabitate in water! When we contaminate the water with all forms of human waste and by-product, we contaminate ourselves. I have always believed that to study planet Earth, is to understand the fragile design of checks and balances, and purification process. Planet Earth is a giant ecological Recycling Center!
AP: What advice do you have for young student teachers writing their first lesson plans about the ocean environment?
CAPT. WALLACE: Spend time by the water and watch her flow. I am a firm believer in life-experience. As I always say to my sailing students, “You will not become a sailor until you get up out of your reading chair and get out on the water and into the wind. Then you will begin to understand Nature’s awesome power, and be humbled”.
AP: Thank you, Captain Wallace. Will you be available to respond to questions during this week?
CAPT. WALLACE: Sure, I welcome any questions on the issues of the arts & the sea environment.
Captain Wallace connects her young students with the ocean in many exciting ways. She utilizes technology to create a learning environment in her classroom that is live and in living color. This summer, she will make such a presentation to scientific illustrators to show them new ways they can explore, interpret, and illustrate the world’s oceans in the 21st century.
Update – September 22, 2013
Captain Wallace has set sail! Follow her and the voyages of the Sparrow on her by watching her video feeds at Ustream.tv.