Extension was a new concept for me when I started my Marine Education Fellowship in the Fall of 2021. I’d been selected to not only support environmental education efforts at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium but also to support and lead an extension or outreach project as part of my fellowship. Luckily, I was able to get up to speed on the concept of extension after attending a handful of professional extension conferences and participating in numerous extension projects led by specialists at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. I can confidently define extension as the process of “bridging the gap.”

Extension specialists work to bridge gaps between entities by creating pathways and building relationships, most often between university researchers and coastal communities. The goal is to make sure science-based solutions to coastal issues is getting into the hands of those who most need it. I applied this extension lesson of “bridging the gap” to my own day-to-day tasks as a marine education fellow. Since starting my position, I’ve had two opportunities where I identified a disconnect, and used my resources to create a solution.

Educators in a classroom setting share educational activities with three individuals.

Maura (right) teaches middle school students about marine debris during an outreach event.

After four months of my fellowship, I realized coastal Georgia was a hub for marine science-related fellowships, internships, and university programs alike. Additionally, I observed that most coastal-themed conferences were catered toward youth or well-established professionals but lacked the “in-between” young professional population as a target audience. Not only was this unfortunate because of the high volume of early career programs along the coast, but because young professional audiences can have the greatest benefit from networking events.

I had identified a gap and pledged to bridge it. My solution was to host an event called Resilient Coast Social where coastal interns, fellows, and students could come together to learn, connect, and represent the group of young professionals dedicated to protecting and enhancing the Georgia coast. Networking and connection were the main focus, but I also invited professionals to share their ongoing work and provide early career guidance to attendees, including extension agents at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

In April 2022, 13 young professionals from various coastal organizations, including Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, Georgia DNR, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, and more, attended the Resilient Coast Social event held at the UGA Aquarium. Throughout the day, attendees participated in professional development sessions, assisted with public service opportunities, and listened to presentations from experts in the fields of fisheries sustainability and coastal resilience. They left with a stronger connection to other young professionals working in coastal programs. Building a cohort of young professionals working in coastal and ocean science can increase the success and scope of programs designed to protect the coast.

During the months leading up to the Resilient Coast Social, I was able to bridge the gap on another front at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s Shellfish Research Lab, where I was assisting with research and outreach efforts. One of the projects researchers at the lab are working on is studying oyster restoration methods. As part of the study, 4,000 bags of recycled oyster shell needed to be filled. At first, the only people making a dent in this bagging effort were Marine Resource Specialist John Pelli and myself. Together, we could assemble about 150 bags in three hours, but I knew we needed extra hands to expedite the process.

close-up image of oyster shells in netted bags

Bags of recycled oyster shell will eventually be used to grow new oysters reefs in Georgia’s estuaries.

The solution was hosting oyster bagging events targeted to the public and Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant volunteers. They were invited to campus to assist with the bagging and support oyster restoration. Between two successful events, we assembled roughly 1,000 bags for the project. This was a win-win because the community was involved in the process of oyster bagging and learned about the importance of oysters to estuary health and coastal resilience.

Whether it’s bridging the gap between coastal organizations or between researchers and the public, this new skill is something I hope to bring to my next position after I wrap up my fellowship. I have learned that listening to others to identify needs and collaborating with partners to utilize resources fosters success across all extension work. This experience will certainly inform my role as an educator and leader.