Each year, UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s four marine education fellows are tasked with organizing the annual Youth Ocean Conservation Summit (YOCS), held at the UGA Aquarium in Savannah. The summit, one of several taking place across the country, empowers middle and high school students with the knowledge and skills necessary to implement ocean conservation projects in their communities.

As one of four Marine Education Fellows based at the UGA Aquarium, I spent several months working alongside the other fellows, pulling together speakers, planning activities and meeting with volunteers leading up to the event. The culmination of all that work was welcoming 40 students to the summit on Saturday, Jan. 26.

Throughout the day, the students participated in skill building workshops, networked with conservation professionals during the career fair and listened to keynote speaker Laura Early talk about her role as the Satilla Riverkeeper, which involves engaging local citizens in the conservation and protection of the Satilla River, its tributaries and watershed. In the afternoon, the students worked in small groups to create conservation action plans for their communities, and they presented these action plans to their peers at the end of the day.

Students at the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit working together on an action plan project.

Planning and executing YOCS was quite the departure from our normal daily tasks as marine education fellows. Our typical day involves lesson planning and educating pre-K-12 students.  During YOCS, the fellows took a step back, covering behind the scenes logistics while experts from the Georgia Forestry Commission, the South Carolina Aquarium, UGA Extension, and the City of Savannah handled the bulk of the teaching. Our job was to make sure the day ran smoothly and that everyone got from point A to point B without issue.

We were lucky to have an engaged group of young leaders who were clearly eager to make a change in their community and have a positive impact on the environment. The students asked thoughtful questions and contributed meaningful insights during conversations with presenters throughout the day. It was incredibly rewarding to see these students dive headfirst into this event after we had invested so much time in organizing and planning.

I knew the summit had been a success during the action planning exercise at the end of the day. The students absolutely lit up when talking about the ideas they had for their conservation project and you could tell they were excited to test them out in their communities, hoping to make a difference.

The whole process of planning YOCS was eye-opening and, at times, challenging but the realization that my efforts are cultivating a future generation of bright and passionate young adults made it all worth the effort. I feel humbled to have had the opportunity to work with these students and I am confident in their ability to tackle conservation issues and protect our coastal environment.