For nearly two decades, Shara Fisler, executive director of Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI) (PAESMEM organization 2010), has worked to transform the futures of children in City Heights, one of San Diego’s most diverse and underserved communities, by engaging them with hands-on marine science and conservation education. Over those years, she and her staff have operated out of a double-wide trailer near San Diego Bay. This fall, Fisler, staff, community members and ODI’s supporters will cut the ribbon on a landmark accomplishment, a new $17 million Living Lab—a science facility and headquarters located in the heart of City Heights.
The vision for the new facility began seven years ago.
“We felt it was important to have a Living Lab, a central facility, that would be located within the community, so that kids and families on a regular basis see that science is something that they can do, and a scientist is someone they can be,” says Fisler. She says the new facility will allow ODI to double the 6,000 City Heights students per year currently participating in the program’s hands-on exposure to marine science and conservation.
The ODI Living Lab, a 12,000-square-foot, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum-certified building, is a public-private partnership. Half of its funding is provided by a San Diego Unified School District revenue bond and the other half from private donations. Among the largest private donors, says Fisler, is the Walter J. and Betty C. Zable Foundation.
ODI’s programs, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through college, create what the organization calls the “spark” in students that causes them to see connections between classroom study and the world around them. In addition to on-site lab projects and field trips, ODI staff visit schools in City Heights three times per week to engage students in their classrooms about marine science and environmental conservation study that is age-appropriate. The ODI approach to science and conservation mentoring has produced results for students and numerous accolades, including the CNN Hero Award in 2016 and top-ranking by Charity Navigator. A recent report by ODI shows “nine of the 13 elementary schools served by ODI have demonstrated increased scores on their state standardized tests during the course of their involvement with the program. Further, while nationally 1 in 10 low income, first-generation college students earn a degree, 8 of 10 high school students in Ocean Discovery Institute’s programs earn a bachelor’s degree within 5 years. Sixty percent of those graduates have majored in science or conservation fields.”
The grand opening of ODI’s Living Lab is expected to draw more than 1,000 people, including nearly 300 of whom registered for the public event within two hours. She says the guests will receive informational tours to learn about the scientific instructional purpose of each room in the facility. Among the guides for the tours will be a brother and sister, Jorge and Marlem Rivera, two former ODI students who currently work in scientific careers.
“They’ll be sharing what these spaces [in the building] are designed for and what students will be able to do in these spaces after the opening. For example, Jorge, who is now an environmental consultant, will showcase the EcoLab and describe to guests how young people and families will use this space to run experiments, take data from samples collected in the field, and design and execute research projects – just the kinds of activities that enabled him to build the skills needed for an environmental consulting career. And his sister, Marlem, who works in biotech at Illumina, a life sciences technology company here in San Diego, will demonstrate how the SciTech Lab will enable students to participate in chemistry and molecular biology and build the skills she uses in in her job today.”
Registration for the ODI Living Lab ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours may be accessed here.