Living on the Gulf Coast requires an appreciation for the way water impacts the nature and quality of life. Whether it be the many streams, rivers, estuaries and bays that give shape to the region, or the expansive Gulf itself, a respect of and familiarity with this omnipresent resource is a vital necessity. Knowledge and respect for its changing ways and attributes can enhance the quality of life for individuals and communities, opening avenues of varied opportunities. A lack of knowledge and respect for such a powerful force can end up being detrimental to individuals and communities.
To ensure the former and decrease the occurrence of the latter, a group of area professors and marine scientists have spearheaded a program to educate youth on the Gulf Coast about how water will impact their lives in the future and ways to strategize about dealing with it.
“Building Sea-Level Rise and Flood Resilience Capacity in the Northern Gulf Through Students and Teachers” is one of nine projects that has received funding from the Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine with the aim of advancing the scientific and environmental literacy of children and youth living in coastal regions.
The program is a collaborative effort between professors and scientists from Mississippi State University, University of South Alabama, Alabama School of Math and Science, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Northern Gulf of Mexico Sentinel Site Cooperative and Smart Home America.
It’s an important endeavor.
According to the GRP: “Communities in U.S. coastal regions face a variety of unique social and environmental challenges likely to be exacerbated in the future by climate change and sea level rise, increased storm intensities and transitioning economies, among other factors. To have the capacity to address these changes effectively, it will be important for the next generation of citizens, scientists, engineers and decision-makers in these regions to understand the challenges and opportunities for addressing them in the context of their local communities.”
Targeted for ninth through 12th graders in Alabama and Mississippi, it will be a hands-on interdisciplinary curriculum involving not only science, but also engineering, math and public policy. Dr. Stephanie Smallegan, a University of South Alabama professor of coastal and civil engineering, noted about the program she is a collaborator on: “This project is unique in that it doesn’t only serve to educate students, but it allows students and educators to think critically and from multiple perspectives about sea level rise and develop their own resilience plan through a capstone project.”
Smallegan further adds: “The learning experience is enhanced through field trips and collaborations with local decision-makers, which, for me, bring a sense of ownership to the curriculum — it’s no longer just learning something new in the classroom, but it’s experiencing sea level rise impacts in our communities and with our local planners.”
Alison Rellinger, project collaborator and marine biology instructor at the Alabama School of Math and Science, explained that whenever you talk about sea level rise many people like to focus on places like Miami or New Orleans, but it is, and will even more so in the near future, present real challenges for all coastal communities.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and a host of other governmental agencies have models projecting sea level rise to be a major problem for coastal communities in the U.S. in the coming decades. Rellinger says it’s due to two main factors: First, ice sheets in places like Antarctica and Greenland are melting and as this land-based ice and snow melts, it increases the amount of water in the world’s oceans, thereby leading to sea level rise.
Second is a feature of the property of water itself — as water warms, it expands. Known as thermal expansion, as the oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere and the water becomes warmer, the overall volume of the ocean is increased. Warm seawater has a greater volume than cold seawater. As the temperature of the ocean increases so will the total ocean volume. The increased volume will cause the level of the water in the oceans to rise.
According to Rellinger, rising sea levels will lead to a multitude of problems coastal communities will increasingly have to deal with. The list includes: larger and more destructive storm surges; degrading of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water supplies, sewage treatment plants and landfills; and stress on coastal ecosystems due to saltwater intrusion, erosion and more frequent nuisance flooding. This is not an exhaustive list but it helps illuminate the importance of this high school classroom program.
Smallegan opined: “It’s so important that our Gulf Coast students know about sea level rise impacts and how to adapt, because they will face those issues head-on. Effective adaptation requires, at least, innovative thought in engineering, comprehensive understanding of policy and budgetary constraints, and appreciation for our cultural diversity and rich historical value in order to protect it.”
They are still in the curriculum development phase of the project and will start pilot tests of the program in the 2020 – 2021 school year. However, several teacher workshops have been conducted in Mississippi and Alabama, and a high level of interest has been shown by educators and school systems in the two states.
As Smallegan summed up: “Ultimately, we want to create a curriculum that deepens the knowledge in Gulf Coast students about coastal hazard science and enhances their ability to synthesize and integrate science-based information into decision-making while also meeting state standards in Alabama and Mississippi.”
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