Finding herself in Viña del Mar for a study abroad program, Alexandra Doudera had a few goals in mind. For six months, the picturesque city on the Pacific Ocean shore of Chile would serve as the backdrop for improving her Spanish skills and teaching English to fifth-graders.
Meanwhile, Doudera, who was a student at Northeastern at the time, was absorbing as much as she could about the methods some coastal cities in Latin America were using to boost their economies without compromising their natural resources and ecosystems. Inspired, Doudera returned to Boston with ideas for her senior capstone project.
The project served as the catalyst for Saltwater Classroom, a nonprofit Doudera founded six months after graduating in 2017 with degrees in marine biology and environmental studies. The organization seeks to teach young students about ocean science and conservation.
“It’s hard to pin down exactly how the inspiration struck, but I think it was just the combination of being there, in that fifth-grade classroom, learning about environmental education, and the similarities between the Chilean coastline and my home state,” Doudera says. “I saw an opportunity for students in different areas around the world to come together, learn about our oceans, and become passionate about them. Hopefully, that translates into them growing up to be responsible stewards of our oceans.”
Through weeklong workshops held in classrooms around the world, Doudera and her team of four—including fellow Northeastern graduate Olivia Dawson—teach fourth- through sixth-graders about the importance of protecting our oceans through hands-on activities and field experiments.
Students learn about the issues facing oceans and coastal ecosystems around the world, including overfishing and plastic pollution, and get familiar with different species of fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Workshop leaders take students to local seashores to sample seawater, measure waves, and search for plankton. They also facilitate science projects and beach clean-ups.
“We focus on not making it a doom-and-gloom type of thing, but positioning it as now that you know a bit about the ocean, here are some issues facing it, and this is what you can do,” Doudera says. “We teach students about different conservation strategies and introduce them to advocacy projects that they can do. A favorite activity is always the marine debris clean-up, which we follow-up with a brainstorm about innovative solutions to the issues of plastic pollution.”
She plans to use money raised by a Kickstarter campaign to create a smartphone app for Saltwater that will enable students to stay engaged with the material and connect with their peers long after they have completed the program.
Doudera is also working to form a board of directors and recruit additional educators to run workshops and broaden Saltwater’s reach. So far, the workshops have been offered in Maine and Mexico, and Doudera says she plans to branch out to Georgia, Massachusetts, Belize, and Canada.
She says she started Saltwater to instill in young people an interest in solving the problems facing our oceans. Many of the students who participate in the program are aware of endangered species or issues such as coral bleaching, she says, but don’t have a deeper understanding about the issues or how they can help to solve them.
“Learning about something, whether it is salt marshes or sea turtles, causes you to care about it, and when you care about something, you value it more than you would otherwise,” she says. “When you value something, you want to protect it and see that no harm comes to it. We need a new wave of this kind of thinking for our oceans.”
Doudera, who grew up on the coast of Maine, says she has always had an interest in the ocean. Northeastern was an ideal place to study marine biology, she says, because it gave her the chance to work on co-op at the Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit that defends existing environmental policies. There, she worked on a national campaign to designate an undersea area 150 miles off the New England coast as the first Atlantic marine national monument in the country.
“That was a great experience,” she says. “It really opened my eyes to the inner workings of nonprofits and solidified for me my passion for the ocean and ocean issues.”