Rancho Santa Fe School District ocean literacy specialist earns national honors


The National Marine Educators Association recently honored Rancho Santa Fe School District’s ocean literacy specialist Roberta Dean as its Marine Educator of Year. While R. Roger Rowe School celebrates every February with Ocean Week, Dean ensures that the principles of Marine Activities Resources and Education (MARE) and ocean literacy are integrated into the curriculum year-round.

“Ocean literacy is an inspiration for art, it’s an inspiration for reading and English language arts, for different phenomena in science and for environmental stewardship opportunities,” Dean said, listing just some of the few areas of integration at Rowe. “There’s so much going on, it’s a thrilling place to get a chance to do a program.”

Dean knew she had been nominated but had no idea she would win when the district sent her to the NMEA conference, held in Newport, Rhode Island June 29-July 2. This year’s theme was “Ocean State, Ocean Planet: Exploring our World of Water,” a look at global ocean literacy.

“It was really exciting. I brought back so much stuff,” Dean said of the books and educational materials that she brought back to Rancho Santa Fe. Her glass trophy (imprinted with a whale) is currently on display in the front office.

Dean said she considered the award to be a “lifetime achievement award” as she has been providing professional development and leadership for marine science education for 35 years.

She was the former developer and director of Project Ocean in San Francisco and served as the executive director at Sonoma Sea School at the Bodega Marine Laboratory.

Back in 1991, Dean co-founded the MARE program at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science and co-authored the K-8 MARE curriculum, used by 900 schools like R. Rowe School nationally and internationally.

Through MARE, each grade level learns about a different habitat: ponds, rocky seashore, sandy beaches, coastal wetlands, kelp forests, open ocean, coral reefs, polar seas and ocean exploration.

Ten years ago, Dean left Berkeley and started the MARE Center at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Superintendent Lindy Delaney joined forces with Dean to create the Scripps Ocean Partnership, which connects the Scripps Institution of Oceanography research community with local schools.

After Dean retired four years ago, she took a half-time position as the ocean literacy specialist at Rowe.

“As a retirement job, it’s a pretty great job. I love it. It’s just what I would like to end my career doing,” Dean said. “I’ve had such a long-standing relationship with the district and the fact that I now get to be on site…it’s pretty awesome to me.”

At Rowe, students follow the MARE curriculum that Dean developed 24 years ago with some adaptations and add-ons. New this year, some of the ocean habitats are being expanded to better reflect students’ local surroundings. In kindergarten, creeks will be included with ponds and will incorporate well into the class field trip to the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve.

New field trips have also been added: San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve where students will work with staff on restoration projects, the Escondido Creek Conservatory, San Diego Botanic Garden, and this year first graders will head to the Birch Aquarium to check out the tide pools instead of going to Swami’s.

There are always new speakers and new issues because of the changing environment.

“Climate change has made things pretty interesting because we have species showing up that didn’t live here before,” Dean said. “We have had giant Humboldt squids all over the place a couple years ago and now we have had humpback whales and blue whales here over the last five years.”

“Our kids will be poised to understand issues like climate change because of the scaffolded understanding of marine environments through all these years. I think that’s the biggest thing we can do — to help kids have an understanding of the environment, deeper than someone who doesn’t have this program.”

With the federal Next Generation Science Standards coming online, it’s been exciting for Dean to create a whole schematic for integrating ocean literacy into the program.

“As a school, we use ocean literacy throughout the curriculum. We care about that,” Dean said, noting that marine education is woven into social studies, science, art, reading and field trips. “I get to help teachers figure out where the connections are.”

Dean also leads the school’s Go Green Club. Through ocean literacy and the Go Green Club, students develop a heightened awareness about the environment. They learn about recycling and how trash ends up in the ocean, and they participate in local beach clean-ups.

The school now has sorting carts at lunch for trash, recyclables and for the new compost garden. The students are also working on growing wetlands plants that they will use to restore native habitats on a future field trip to the San Dieguito River Park.

“It’s tough to be a kid and hear about marine debris and trash as big as Texas in the middle of the ocean, sea levels rising and oil spills,” Dean says. “They need to have some way of understanding, some perspective … and have a place to ask questions.”

Dean tries to bring in a wide variety of perspectives for students to hear from, such as representatives from I Love a Clean San Diego, environmental authors, kelp forest divers and a fisherman from the local fishing community.

“When we learn about environmental issues, a lot of it is hard to take,” Dean said. “Through the Go Green Club, the kids feel like they have an opportunity to do something positive. It’s about stewardship. Kids need to feel like they’re empowered, not just thinking of the world as falling apart around us.”

Dean has high hopes for this next generation of scientists and is proud to have written letters of recommendation for former students who have gone on to pursue marine science.

She will never forget when one of her fourth- grade students called her after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and asked her what they were going to do, understanding that the time of year it occurred was during the upwelling current and how he was personally concerned about the sea otters.

“It moved me so much, the power of education, that it meant so much to him. That’s what marine education is all about — when a kid is able to assimilate it and take ownership of it,” Dean said. “It’s pretty cool when it can have an impact on what they decide to do with their lives.”