May 2, 2017; KPBS
The Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI) is an in-school, afterschool, and summer program serving hands-on science to students from an underserved neighborhood, City Heights, in San Diego. Founded in 1999, Charity Navigator gives the organization four stars. CNN gave its founder and executive director, Shara Fisler, its 2016 Heroes award, and President Obama gave her the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. The San Diego Unified School District gives ODI access to its schools. Many donors and thousands of volunteers give of their time and resources. Most importantly, the kids give ODI their curiosity and effort.
ODI offers standards-based, curriculum-aligned science education during the school day and hands-on experience at all hours. Ninety-two percent of ODI alumni are currently enrolled in college or have completed their bachelor’s degree—60 percent with degrees in science and conservation.
In 2015, ODI completed a $15 million capital campaign to create Living Lab, a tuition-free ocean science and conservation learning and research center to be supported by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In February 2016, demolition began, followed by construction of the 12,000-square-foot, LEED platinum certified facility. The grand opening is on September 16, 2017, the beginning of the next school year.
The Living Lab campus is located in City Heights within walking distance for many of the community’s youth. Living Lab is seven miles inland, and yet many City Heights youth have never seen the Pacific Ocean. It will come as no surprise to many NPQ readers who work in poverty areas that most of ODI’s students have never even ventured more than 10 blocks from home, let alone delved into the mysteries of science (see CNN’s video here). Some of the students get to go snorkeling and scuba diving. Living Lab will include two laboratories, a garden, a community kitchen and a studio apartment for a scientist-in-residence.
Living Lab will transform lives; it is far more than a building. ODI’s website offers this vision for City Heights young people and their families:
Ocean Discovery currently serves 6,000 young people a year from City Heights in hands-on science and conservation. But there are 14,000 more young people in the community eagerly awaiting these opportunities.
In order to expand our work to engage more than 20,000 individuals each year, reach a wider audience, provide more frequent and in-depth involvement, and establish organizational sustainability, we have partnered with the San Diego Unified School District to build a permanent facility in City Heights. This will be our Living Lab.
Fisler was teaching at the University of San Diego as an adjunct faculty member when she founded ODI to leverage San Diego’s natural environments as a means to engage young people from underserved communities and inspire them to become part of the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders.
The San Diego Unified School District helped to fund the construction of Living Lab through taxpayer bonds. Living Lab will be managed by ODI. This is the first time the school district board has entered into a shared-cost agreement with a nonprofit organization.
With support from NOAA, ODI began to explore the feasibility of replicating its program in 2013. In 2015, they decided on Norfolk, Virginia as the next location. They have since been welcoming their new partners to City Heights for tours, such as the Norfolk Redevelopment Housing Authority and the Norfolk Department of Parks and Recreation.
With an annual budget of about $3 million, many would consider ODI to be a “small” educational nonprofit, of which there are far too many competing for too few dollars. But ODI means the world to the City Heights young people and their families. ODI is also helping the San Diego Unified School District meet its targets. President Obama and CNN honored Fisler for her accomplishments, probably without even considering the size of ODI’s budget. Perhaps an ODI alum might go on to contribute to solving the problem of global climate change.—James Schaffer