I.CARE’s Kylie Smith and Riley Garvey take notes on restoration efforts. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

“This gives me hope. There’s no better word for it. This – right here – is hope.”

That’s what Kylie Smith, co-founder of Islamorada coral restoration nonprofit I.CARE had to say about the cutting edge coral restoration science being done in the Keys. She, along with other marine conservation professionals and educators from throughout the Keys helped to host a contingent of Mexican officials, teachers, students and changemakers for a weekend of knowledge sharing and collaboration in late April. The fruits of that interchange will be borne over the next few months and years.

“This program is really important to us because we have the goals of teaching the next generation about ocean conservation, and also about global connections,” said Ocean Studies Charter School teacher Martha Loizeaux. “It’s great to have this exchange program where they can learn not only from scientists but also from scientists in other parts of the world different from where we live.”

Through the “Ocean Heroes” exchange program, leading scientists, teachers, students and conservation organizations from around the world will come to the Keys to learn about our conservation education, techniques and knowledge. In turn, Keys schools will go abroad to learn from our sister-cities’ experts. It’s a unique and ambitious opportunity for Keys kids to broaden their horizons and grow their ocean literacy in an interactive and educational exchange.

The groundbreaking endeavor is the work of the Celebration of the Sea Foundation. Founder and CEO Patxi Pastor said, “The purpose of this is to take a deep breath and consider all that’s possible. We have some of the top people in the world in conservation, education, science all in one room.”

The pilot program launched with Treasure Village Montessori School in Islamorada, Sugarloaf School in Summerland Key, Ocean Studies Charter School in Key Largo and the Academy at Ocean Reef Club. Our first sister school is the Leonardo Da Vinci Schools in Cancún, Mexico, which is officially certified as a Cambridge International Bilingual educational institution. In total, 10 Mexican Ocean Heroes Ambassadors from Cancún traveled to the Keys. They included government officials, citizen-scientists, leading researchers and school officials. 

During their jam-packed visit, they learned about I.CARE’s restoration methodology and participated in a coral restoration dive alongside several Monroe County students. The visitors also learned about sea turtle rehabilitation from Marathon’s renowned Turtle Hospital and mammal rescue from Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Rescue team – plus they helped rescue a manatee. 

The emphasis is on interactive learning and doing – facilitated by technology. “If we can get these kids engaged, they’re the ones that will change the world,” said Treasure Village Montessori’s science teacher Bobbi Burson. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Over the next year, the Ocean Heroes program will live-stream interactive broadcasts between classrooms in Monroe County, the Leonardo Da Vinci Schools in Cancún and scientists and conservationists working in the field. Celebration of the Sea will complement the live exchange with pre-recorded video content, produced in house, in collaboration with leading U.S. and Mexican educational, conservation and research organizations. 

Pastor also plans to deploy a Starlink on research vessels around the world so that students can watch live and interview scientists as they work. He said, “We can be anywhere, and bring the oceans to the frontline in the classrooms. This technology allows us to have students and teachers underwater with us, asking questions live on the reef.”

This complements the hands-on education typical in many Monroe County schools. “Our students don’t learn to protect the marine environment by reading it in a book,” said Sugarloaf Elementary School teacher Callie Harris. “They have to feel it with their fingers and under their toes. I’m looking forward to this partnership for my students for years to come.”

The goal is also to provide students with direct access to a broad range of international leaders and role models in key subject areas. These include subjects critical to the future of the Florida Keys, such as marine plastics, marine animal rescue and protection, fish population studies, civic leadership, governance of marine protected areas, and more. 

“The principal thing is to give kids skills and abilities for life,” said Leonardo da Vinci middle school principal Romina Mendiola. “And now, this project gives us the tools to make this possible.”

Through these connections, the Ocean Heroes program aims to encourage more jobs and career paths for students in STREAM (Science, Technology, Resiliency, Engineering, Arts & Math), eco-tourism, fisheries, hospitality and the marine industries. 

The grand experiment ended with a roundtable discussion about what’s next. “I think we’re creating something huge for the Florida Keys and for Quintana Roo (the Mexican state that Cancún sits in) too,” said Daniel Rodriguez, a Mexican youth environmental leader and the founder of Snorkeling4Trash. 

Pastor urged the educators and community leaders to challenge the foundation by coming to them with their biggest educational wishes. Think curriculum, technology, access, opportunities and budget – everything is on the table. “We need to know what the teachers need, what it would look like to co-create this program with impact and scale,” Pastor said. “To get there, we need to provide you with the resources and capacity. We’re gonna throw the coolest stuff at this.”