In fall of 2015, I moved to Brunswick, Ga., to begin my journey at the College of Coastal Georgia as a coastal ecology major. I had always found coastal ecosystems fascinating, and therefore chose this major as a way to learn about and help protect them. As I was nearing the end of my college career, I had the opportunity to work as a water quality intern with Katy Smith at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, on a project called “Salt Marsh Soldiers Tackle Marine Debris in Coastal Georgia,” funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. The internship changed my entire world.

My time at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant has been anything but boring. Every day spent in the office or out in the field brings new experiences and challenges that help me put my academic work into action. My project with Katy focuses on marine debris and how we can stop the cycle of mismanaged waste that is ending up in our oceans. During the 2016-17 school year we worked with educators and students at a local school, Glynn Middle School, to raise awareness of marine debris. We taught the students about their environment, including the plants and animals that are found there, and how they can help protect it from trash, microplastics and single-use products. Each lesson had hands-on activities, allowing the students to make connections to real life situations with marine debris.

We also engaged students in the school science club, Salt Marsh Soldiers, by taking them out on monthly debris cleanups around the school and nearby marsh. We found plastic bottles, food wrappers, foam containers and even mattresses! As a way of recognizing their cleanup efforts, we invited the students to design Salt Marsh Soldier t-shirts. They now wear them proudly, spreading the message about what they’ve learned and efforts they’ve made to reduce trash in the local community.

Through all the lessons, cleanups and routine interactions with the students, I was able to see the kinds of things seventh graders really connect with and relate to. During multiple visits, we built awareness and educated them about ways to reduce their impact. By our third and fourth visits, they greeted us with hugs and stories about trash they had noticed over the weekend.

Most impactful for me was discovering how easy it is to create meaningful relationships with students based on something many people don’t think twice about – trash!