Friday, June 24, 2016

Ocean Conservation Through Art – Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs

Editors Note: We are proud to have partnered over the years with the Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs to support young people interested in using art as a tool to communicate ocean conservation through our Youth Ocean Conservation Summit program. In this guest blog, Alyssa Irizarry shares her personal journey to her role as program manager with Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs, and highlights outstanding student created art pieces submitted through their annual Ocean Awareness Student Contest.

When I was a senior in high school, two classmates and I painted a mural on the door of our marine biology classroom. The mural depicted a cross section of a rocky seamount and incorporated the many topics we had covered thus far in the semester.

The mural was not for extra credit, nor did we paint it, necessarily, for fun. As advanced studio art students, we were given the option of painting the mural instead of writing a paper, which provided us with a different opportunity to reflect on our lessons in marine ecology.

At first glance, it may seem like the three of us certainly lucked out; however, the project was not as simple as grabbing a few brushes and tubes of primary colors. We had to petition the principal for permission to paint on the door, and we had to create budgets for materials and for time. We had to develop the mural’s design and in planning, we had to do research on the ecosystem in order to accurately illustrate it. The assignment reinforced our skills in teamwork, time management, and research.

Most importantly, the project showed me that I didn’t need to have an interest in art or in science. The two – together – are a very powerful tool. As an undergrad, I became very interested in the ways that the arts can be used, specifically, to communicate environmental conservation. Art can – and should – be harnessed to inspire a greater appreciation for and a more nuanced understanding of the natural world – and the many serious issues facing it.

My lifelong interest in the ocean and the arts has taken me from Mexico (conducting research on sea turtle murals) to The Bahamas (teaching environmental art)… and to Massachusetts, where I am now the Program Manager at Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs, a Boston-based nonprofit with a mission to inspire and empower the next generation of ocean caretakers through art, science, and advocacy. 

 “Title,” by Jonathan Barrera, 2015 Silver Award (High School) Winner in Art

Each year Bow Seat hosts the Ocean Awareness Student Contest, which challenges middle and high school students around the world to communicate the science of pressing ocean issues through art, poetry, prose, or film. The theme of this year’s Contest is “Making Meaning of Ocean Pollution,” and we want students to use their problem-solving skills, creativity, and communication skills to raise awareness about ocean pollution and to call the world to action.

I recently attended a lecture on the impact of shipping and seismic exploration noise on marine wildlife, whales in particular. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable on ocean issues, but I was blown away at the extent to which we’re polluting our oceans with noise. You can learn more about noise pollution at

Last year, the Contest received over 1,100 amazing submissions from 43 U.S. states and 34 countries. Bow Seat awarded hundreds of prizes to students and their schools and teachers – more than $80,000 in total! But we don’t just want the Contest to end at the prize. We also help find exhibition and publishing opportunities for the winners throughout the year to help them jumpstart a career in “ARTivism.”

We want students to understand art’s potential to motivate action.

The mechanical pencil
I scratch this poem out with
Is plastic
The material of infinite human uses
Destroying our world’s first gift

The keys I will use to tap out
The sad song my pen sings
Are plastic Used to create a portal of knowledge
But will poison and choke Earth’s greatest miracle

An unsuspecting marlin
Will swallow a splinter of my pencil
Poked through the stomach
Wasting away in the deep

A careless pelican
Will ingest the keys
That once typed this poem
A nefarious alphabet soup

Excerpt from “Indispensable Devices, Trashed Every Day,” by Connor Webb, 2015 Gold Award (Middle School) in Poetry

Through reflections and evaluations, we have found that students who participate in our Contest are often learning about threats to ocean ecosystems for the first time. The creative outlet for processing new knowledge makes that information stick, often resulting in meaningful and long-lasting behavior change within students. In their own words:

“Whenever I go to the lake or ocean and see trash, rather than just leaving it, I now pick it up. I used to think it wasn't my responsibility.”

“I'm far more conscious of my plastics usage. I make more responsible choices now. And I advocate more for the oceans and water systems more than ever.”

We at Bow Seat believe that changing our world for the better starts by inspiring youth to vividly imagine a better future and empowering them to create it themselves. We invite you to learn more about the Ocean Awareness Student Contest and consider submitting your own entry for next year's contest! 

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