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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Belfer

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Like the turtle of folktales, I feel this year has started off slowly and gained momentum with the spring. I've learned a lot about business in general, but mine specifically. When working with schools, the curriculum really dictates when I can go in for programs, and that means a mad rush in the spring (March-May) when teachers are working through ecosystems and biology units. Throughout the school year, they are highlighting earth science, physical science, and space science, so unless my marine science activities change to include sound/light/magnetism, orbits and moon phases, or volcanoes and earthquakes, I probably will not see a huge uptick in programming throughout most of the school year.

I thought I could off-set some of that time with teacher workshops, giving educators the tools to easily incorporate marine and environmental science into their curriculum throughout the year (so I don't have to wait until March to do programs). This turned into a recruitment nightmare because teachers were registering and not pre-paying, and registering for workshops far off in the year rather than the ones right in that month or the next. So what was a great plan to "fill in the gaps" turned into time spent chasing money, enticing people to change their registration to earlier workshops, and cancelling workshops on account of no attendance. Lesson learned: only have upcoming two months of workshops available to register at a time.

Then comes something I wasn't going to address, but have decided to in a professional and public way. Marine CSI: Coastal Science Investigations was never built with the intention to compete with any other organization who conducts outreach to schools. Our niche is classroom-based programming, where I bring most of the materials for hands-on learning experiences without having to worry about permits for live animals, insurance to cover liability for said animals, or large-group programming. I pride myself on having a 1:25 ratio, or in some cases a 1:35 ratio, so that I can give my time and attention to individual classes for one full hour at a time. I have been conducting these types of outreach education programs for the last 20 years.

I had decided to offer similar programming to educators in the form of monthly workshops, where I break down some of my favorite activities for them and share insights on how to best incorporate our lessons into the curriculum. In doing this, I have partnered with NC Sea Grant this year to enhance the workshops I had done previously, and to give myself a wider audience with their contacts. With the partnership, it gives Marine CSI access to and use of their individual Sea Grant facilities, which are usually housed at college/university campuses.

This past month, we ran into a huge supposed conflict of interest with one of the leading marine science education programs that UNCW runs: MarineQuest. As a past MQ employee, I saw nothing in conflict with the work I had been conducting throughout the school year in the schools. They bring live animals, I do not; they bring giant blow-up whales, I bring photos and stuffed animals; they conduct shorter rotation-station style learning experiences, I bring full-hour hands-on learning modules. They even do outdoor education programming, where they bring students to the ecosystems, where I do not. So when it was brought to my attention that the director of MarineQuest had an issue with me utilizing the Center for Marine Science (where NC Sea Grant has an office) for teacher workshops, it really threw me off.

In the six years that Marine CSI has been conducting business in the region, we have never done so with a competitive notion. We have never intentionally tried to take MarineQuest's clients away from them. In fact, I worked in tandem with them, as I have done my best to promote their summer camps whenever I'm in schools. My programming is priced significantly lower simply because I do not have the liability of a student being bit or scratched by a live animal or bringing a student out to an ecosystem where they could be hurt. I do not need to have permission slips for field trip experiences, because I bring the field trips to them.

With teacher workshops comparatively, there is an outdoor component so that any teachers/educators actively seeking their NCEE certification or continuing education credits can receive Criteria II credit for attending our workshops. With the partnership with NC Sea Grant, this gives us access to wet labs and outdoor docks/facilities the universities use for research, and a representative from NC Sea Grant will be present at our workshops to cover any liability and protocol that must be followed. MarineQuest's director questioned our validity and use of the facility for teacher workshops when they also conduct workshops (which are at the moment not scheduled on their website and are "coming soon").

I had to issue a public clarification in my recruitment correspondence so that there was no confusion that MarineQuest was NOT conducting these teacher workshops at the Center for Marine Science, and that our partnership was with NC Sea Grant. Yet the damage was already done. We had to unfortunately cancel that workshop since no one registered for it, and I have yet to specifically and personally have a conversation with MQ's director about this supposed conflict.

While I have never been secretive about the work Marine CSI does in the region, I have made it a clear point on my website to state that no program, branding, or workshop is affiliated with the work that UNCW or their MarineQuest program does. Although a past employee, I have made sure that the work I do is not in conflict with theirs, I have been clear and concise in my recruitment about my website links, so there is no confusion about where to register/contact for programs, and I have never been asked to stand down with regards to my programming for the sake of another organization in the region.

I have been very much a stakeholder in the environmental education community in the Southeast region of NC for many years, through my time here working for the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Museum of Coastal Carolina, and MarineQuest, as well as my volunteer work with Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. Never in my 20 years of conducting outreach education programs to students and their teachers, have I ever had someone question the validity of the work I do, without justification or a conversation to discuss said conflict.

Marine CSI: Coastal Science Investigations is a for-profit business that conducts in-school field trip opportunities to all schools in the Brunswick-New Hanover-Pender-Onslow County area. We work with public, private, homeschool, Girl Scout, and preschools to ensure an "empowering, engaging, and exceptional learning experience" through our hands-on marine science activities. Our Coastal Curriculum was designed to provide educators with a resource to build environmental and marine science into their schools and our Explore Your Watershed series was designed to give families an opportunity to get out to their local ecosystems and conduct their own hands-on experiments. Our big books of lessons were adapted and are adaptable to enhance the science curriculum with correlation to the Next Generation Science Standards. All of our resources are currently self-published and profits from sales go directly into the purchasing of more materials for our programs.

I have plans for a five-year expansion to include other counties to the west, as well as our brand new Marine CSI Ambassador program, where educators can enroll in our webinar series and learn what it takes to fully incorporate marine and environmental science into their schools. With our partnership with NC Sea Grant, we have been able to expand our horizons with teacher workshops to better serve our education community and provide Criteria II credit for those involved with NCEE. As a NC certified Environmental Educator, I want to give back and provide amazing hands-on learning experiences for educators like the ones I was provided with. At no point in my career should I have to manage the insecurities of others with regards to the work I do, the facilities I utilize through the partnerships I have made, or the expansion of my business to reach more students and educators.

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