The iSea iCare program is creating young ambassadors to spread the word on the environmental impact of pollution on our local waterways.
In 2000, the team at the Dolphin Research Institute (DRI) worked out that to change the behaviours of people in the community, primary schools were the best place to start. “We came up with the environmental ambassador idea, where we see students once a term to educate them on the marine environment and they take that back to their school community to spread the message,” says Mandy Robertson, DRI’s education director.
Mandy, a teacher, biologist, and winner of Environment Education Victoria’s ‘2020 Educator of the Year’ award, runs the iSea iCare program at the DRI, a marine conservation organisation based in Hastings. She is passionate about the ongoing work to look after the Great Southern Reef.
“The Dolphin Research Institute started in 1990 as a group of volunteers immersed in the water environment. Port Phillip Bay wasn’t clean, so they were concerned about the dolphins. They started out doing research, looking at the dolphins’ population size and skin health.”
Children respond best to people their own age, Mandy says, “so we teach the students who are already seen as leaders. We empower them to be environmental champions within their own community, to take care of their own marine backyard. They model behaviour and teach the younger students. Even when it comes to adults learning from kids – it’s hard to ignore a child telling you something that’s important.”
“The program provokes curiosity and motivation, and develops passion.”
In Terms 1 and 2, student ambassadors swim with dolphins and seals, and snorkel in the bay. They learn peer teaching and teach the younger students, and are equipped to do presentations at assemblies and make their own environmental projects.
“In Term 3, they look at catchments, storm water – where it falls and the impact – macroinvertebrates, water testing, and how to test litter. We also look at how to reduce the sources of waste.”
Lastly, they take it back to the coast. “We look at a local reserve and how it’s managed by council. We look at Indigenous plants and learn about Country from people who have lived on this land for centuries. Then, we celebrate the students’ projects and the change they’ve generated, with guest speakers from conservation, marine science and marine communication.”
The DRI is funded a mix of ways: donors, members’ monthly fees, collection tins, fundraisers, education programs, and council funding. Ninety-seven schools are currently involved, with fees kept low so the program is open to as many as possible.
“We all live near the bay,” Mandy says. “So, it’s our own backyard, its unique, and it’s important that younger generations feel that ownership so they can change things and make a difference.”
Princes Hill Primary School teacher Toni Kerr speaks highly of the program. “The children love it. We have 20 students in the program each year and twice as many always apply.
“It provokes curiosity and motivation and develops passion. On the excursions, they see how the Institute makes a difference, so they can mirror that. It’s mentioned in their grad speeches at the end of Grade 6. They see their career pathways there, in conservation, in marine biology – they really do. It’s part of their future.”
Mandy lives and breathes the program. “It’s the thing that gets me up every day, knowing these kids. Whatever we’re doing is resonating with them. By the end of the year, you can see what a huge difference it has made to them.”