Connecting Chicago to coral

Students here, in Fiji, will examine reef issues through the Web

05/19/2010 10:00 PM

Medill News Service

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FijiReef is an online computer program that allows students to explore and learn about underwater environments.
Courtesy Beth Sanzenbacher

It’s a scene right out of “Finding Nemo,” with sea turtles and jellyfish float along above eye-popping coral reefs. Except this is a virtual world and behind the screen sit Chicago high school students exploring the depths.

Seven thousand miles away, another group of students on the West Pacific island of Fiji join the Chicago team and begin to tell them stories about what it’s like to live near coral reefs.

Such an immersive experience will debut next spring thanks to a program created by the Field Museum called Fiji Reef. The program aims to encourage teens from both countries to collaborate on issues of coral reef conservation and exploration.

“It’s the perfect way to get teens interested in science,” said Joshua Drew, marine biologist at the Field Museum and Fiji Reef project leader. “Students in Chicago can’t readily step outside and study it, but they can learn firsthand from people their age.”

Drew got the idea for the program after having studied reefs off the coast of the island. For years, he and his team have worked with Fijians to encourage collaboration between villages to prevent overfishing.

Using the Fiji Reef Web site, students can explore simulated underwater environments, count and identify sea life and gain an understanding about how reefs are affected by manmade and natural disasters. The goal is to open a dialogue and discuss the dangers facing oceans today.

“The two primary threats — overfishing and climate change — affect Fijians and Chicagoans in very different ways,” Drew said. “So it makes sense to get them talking to each other and about solutions.”

Outside the virtual world, Chicago students are required to participate in after-school sessions and organize community projects such as conservation forums and beach cleanups. Students will also work directly with scientists from institutions across the city, such as the Shedd Aquarium.

VOISE Academy, in Austin, was chosen as the inaugural Fiji Reef partner school because of its emphasis on digital learning.

Approximately 30 students from the academy and 20 students from Suva, Fiji will be selected to participate in 2011 program.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is funding the project, and the team also just accepted the 2010 Digital Media and Learning award in Washington, DC. The event was held in conjunction with National Lab Day as part of the White House’s new Educate to Innovate Initiative.

“This project is a great opportunity for students who have the drive and interest, but up until now didn’t know where to apply it,” Drew said. “It’s going to add a definite ‘wow factor’ to their resume when they apply to college.”

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