After school, most young adolescents may get involved in sports, dance, clubs, maybe a little theater. In the Keys, they also might become scientific divers.
Wait … what?
Meet Kama and Richie Cannon, the co-founders of DiveN2Life, a unique nonprofit STEM enrichment program in the Lower Keys. In the organization’s own words, it uses SCUBA diving as a tool to “provide children and youth with the education and experience to affect positive individual, social, civic and environmental change.”
After meeting a professor who taught scientific diving and learning the skills themselves in the Keys, Kama and Richie relocated to Big Pine Key in 2016. As a former gifted education specialist, Kama felt a need to provide programming for students who needed a bit more than what public schools can provide. “There are some kids who are highly motivated and high-achieving gifted learners who can’t fulfill their full potential in a traditional school setting,” she said. In addition, the Cannons believe there are students who have high potential, but may not be identified as gifted. Kama said, “We wanted to reach out to kids who think differently, learn differently, see the world differently, and who don’t have access to higher level programs to feed their intellect and passion.”
While DiveN2Life was not officially founded until June 2017, the pair began meeting with students in May 2016. Early on, one of their greatest challenges was identifying students who needed the type of STEM enrichment that the organization offered — not just students whose parents thought they might be interested. Participants are expected to reach out and apply for DiveN2Life on their own. DiveN2Life is looking for individuals who show a potential for higher learning, are self-regulated, and are resilient enough to handle a demanding, higher-risk extracurricular activity.
In addition to finding the right participants, the organization needed a home base. Asking dive shops to allow free instruction and gear rentals is no small task, but after asking every shop between Marathon and Key West to sponsor their program, the Cannons finally met Will Fox of Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive Center.
“Looe Key was on board right away,” Kama said. “Will agreed that kids don’t always have much to do down here, and he wanted to help.” Not long after, Scuba Schools International (SSI), agreed to donate the necessary course materials so that program volunteers could be certified as SSI dive instructors and work with Looe Key. Mote Marine Laboratory eventually completed the group’s facility needs by providing classroom space for land-based classes.
DiveN2Life aims to pair their students’ intensity for learning, growth, knowledge and leadership with a chance to be trained as scientific divers. Learning to dive is a part of the program, but from the beginning it is not simply recreational. Students are trained as American Association of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Science Divers so that they can later design and participate in scientific studies. “We train them as professionals, and give them the roles of professionals,” she said.
With professional roles comes the expectation that students conduct themselves as mature young adults. Participants are expected to manage their own communications, homework and online learning, and are fully responsible for their own attendance at the program’s events. According to Cannon, if students are used to having their parents protect them from challenges and the possibility of failure, they’re missing the point. “We have the attitude of ‘fail early and often.’ It can be challenging to get parents to understand that we have to push kids outside their comfort zones in different ways,” Kama said. “We need them to take safe risks so they can grow, develop grit and resiliency, and become strong independent leaders.”
With over 100 past and current participants, DiveN2Life’s outreach and impact has quickly spread beyond Looe Key Dive Center’s pool. In addition to sharing their work with their families, friends, and schools, students have taken home awards at district and state level science fairs, presented at Sanctuary Advisory Council meetings and Everglades Coalition conferences, and even received an invitation to apply to the Sanctuary Advisory Council as student representatives. International field experiences designed to reinforce students’ skills and teach them new methodologies have already taken the group to the Bahamas, Belize, Washington, D.C., and Epcot, with trips to Puerto Rico, the Cayman Islands, and the Georgia Aquarium in the works.
Instructor and Vice President Nicole Charnock sums it up best. “I can’t think of a better way to prepare kids for a future in science and diving. These kids have traveled more than most adults I know. I just wish we had a program like this where I grew up.”
Want to learn more about DiveN2Life? Get in touch at www.diven2life.org or by liking “DiveN2Life” on Facebook.