I believe water will be the defining crisis of our century — from droughts, storms, and floods to degrading water quality. We'll see major conflicts over water and the proliferation of water refugees. We inhabit a water planet, and unless we protect, manage, and restore that resource, the future will be a very different place from the one we imagine today. — Alexandra Cousteau, ocean activist, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau
There were 700 people — many young ones —at Portland State University on May 19 listening to renowned marine scientist and documentarian Sylvia Earle, PhD. Here was the 84-year-old on stage discussing the trials and tribulations of her own life working as a scientist while 17-year-old Genevieve Coblentz-Strong was prepping to address the audience after the octogenarian rock star of the oceans finished her presentation.
“I really want to make a difference in the health of the oceans,” Genevieve tells me while we sit outside at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. We’re with her mother, Marilyne Coblentz, who introduced me to her daughter’s story when I was volunteering as naturalist for the American Cetacean Society on World Orca Awareness day.
The conversation floats from a proud mother, who grew up in Pennsylvania with two high school teacher parents, to Genevieve’s aspirations and goals to be her own rock star water planet scientist. Luckily for the young woman, her mother and father, Colin Strong, ended up purchasing a home in Newport six years ago to not only have a place on the coast, but to enhance their daughter’s fascination and obsession with “all things tied to the sea.”
Not so unusual is Genevieve’s desire to attend OSU to study both a marine science track and civil engineering major. “I know marine biology is an oversaturated field. I am also interested in ocean energy, and engineering to possibly clean up the ocean of all the plastics.”
As a teacher, both PK12 and college-level, I am interested in what our youth have to say about their education — both the quality and intensity of it. Genevieve was quick to say that she was bored in junior and high schools, and luckily, she is able to participate in the accelerated credit program at Portland Community College — Rock Creek.
“I have been taking advanced biology and math classes at PCC,” she said. “I really see this opportunity to take accelerated college classes ideal for me.” Her home school is Sunset High School in Beaverton where the Coblentz-Strong family has a home. The young woman is putting much effort into finishing her high school credits and completing college baccalaureate core classes vis-à-vis the dual credit program the state of Oregon (and other states) has designed.
Mother and daughter have dived head-first into many opportunities on the coast such as Whale Watching Spoken Here and the American Cetacean Society naturalist certification as well as other experiences and outings tied to tidepools, marine estuaries and more.
The Allure of the Gray Whales
“She was curious as to why there were signs and warning tape around the newborn monk seal,” Marilyne said. “It was an opportunity for Genevieve to ask why this newborn monk seal was closed off to human contact. Who and what are they being protected from?”
Genevieve’s mother emphasizes that her daughter was captivated by the ocean when the family took a family vacation to Kauai, where the three-year-old Genevieve encountered a few-hours-old monk seal. The young girl’s enthusiasm was piqued when she was given the opportunity to live in Newport and shadow well-known gray whale researcher Carrie Newell, PhD., whose Depoe Bay Whale Research Eco-Excursions sea life museum and whale watching zodiac trips got Genevieve hooked big time.
“Carrie showed me all the specimens in her sea life museum,” Genevieve said. “Carrie told me everything she knew about sea life. Carrie let me take any empty seat on her whale excursion boats.”
That opportunity and tutelage by Newell — who has degrees in Fisheries and Wildlife; Biology, Botany and Geology Composite; Invertebrate Zoology focusing on amphipods; and a graduate degree from OSU in Biological Oceanography focusing on Gray Whales and their food, mysid shrimp — fostered a seamless learning relationship that propelled Genevieve into pursuing college degrees in STEM — science technology engineering and math.
Newell discovered while diving in Depoe Bay huge swarms of mysid shrimp that make up a large percentage of the bay’s biomass
The then-sixth-grade girl got the golden opportunity to be mentored by this researcher who scientifically described these mysid swarms as the Gray whale’s constant food supply.
Many deem Depoe Bay as the “Gray whale watching capital of the world.”
For Genevieve and Marilyne, the recent influx of Gray whale strandings all the way from California, north, to Alaska is concerning. The young girl is steeled to learn more on how she might help both the Gray whale and the oceans in general.
Marilyne points to her daughter’s passion for the ocean at a very early age: “She’s always been interested in the ocean, in tide pools. Her destiny is the water ... she was born a cancer. The crab is her sign.”
The lure of the ocean: part II
“I really love teaching younger kids,” Genevieve Coblentz-Strong says while we are behind a small playground at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
I ask which age group is her favorite to interact with: “Five-year olds” she said. “They can formulate questions. And they are so excited to learn.”
Genevieve, whose proud mother beams during this interview, has been volunteering at the aquarium for more than three years, now logging more than 2,000 hours as a volunteer. The 17-year-old Beaverton native also worked with youth as a counselor for Audubon Society, leading a tidepool orientation excursion mainly made up of first through fifth graders from Portland.
The trip had been planned for the Gorge, but the wildfires there last year forced a change in venues.
Genevieve and I gravitate once again to the power of education, or the lack thereof in our current models of teaching. “I was amazed at how smart these kids are and how much they can comprehend,” she said. “Plus, they are really curious and want to learn as much as possible.”
The idea of field trips — excursions — and hands-on learning as well as inspirational teachers were discussed by Genevieve, her mom and me. Her mom is discouraged that the state of Oregon has cut so much funding for extra-curricular activities like field trips. “These trips out to museums and other places are really great opportunities for youth who are disadvantaged.”
The lynchpin for me is redoing education from the bottom up — turning it into a hands-on dynamic learning lab, with teachers in all fields working as a team to help students learn the connections between all subject matter and the systems that are the bedrock to ecology, earth and planetary sciences, as well as vibrant communities.
Genevieve also adds to the conversation on how the quality of inspired leadership can make the difference: “If you are engaged with what you are teaching, then young people will want to learn,” she said. “I’ve had a few teachers that have been both supportive and engaged.” One such person for her was a seventh-grade teacher who had been a salmon researcher before going into teaching.
One Part Inspiration, One Part Guiding Parent
“My mom really got me to love the ocean,” Genevieve said. “The ocean consumes my whole life.”
Her mom, Marilyne, grew up in a town outside Philadelphia with limited opportunities. They did get to the New Jersey shore regularly, where the young Marilyne walked the beach, collected shells, played with crabs. The Intel marketing professional admits that compared to now, her generation “didn’t have the opportunities young people now have with the internet to learn about so many things.”
Marilyne, unlike her daughter, knew nothing about advanced studies in marine sciences, and with a family of five living on two teachers’ salaries, she wasn’t afforded the same opportunities that her only child Genevieve has had.
Her father, Colin, is an electrical engineer and works in Hillsboro, but with a more flexible work schedule, Marilyne and their daughter get to spend significant chunks of time here on the Oregon Coast. Currently, Genevieve is volunteering at the aquarium, as well as taking a 300-level oceanography course at OSU-Hatfield.
She’s also working with Citizen’s Science Project volunteer Karen Driscoll.
“Karen is in her 70s and her passion is around the coast” Marilyne said. “She and Genevieve are like two peas in a pod.” The 17-year-old is working with Karen on studying the marine reserves and recently helped with the BioBlitz, looking at sea stars and other inter-tidepool species.” A former OHSU blood lab professional, Driscoll has also inspired the young Coblentz-Strong to study tidepools, something Genevieve says she does with her friends in their spare time.
Knowledge Bowl Competitions
Some of that “down” time includes working with a team of five high school students on the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s National Ocean Sciences Bowl team, the “Nerdi Nautili.” NOSB competition tests high-schoolers’ knowledge of the marine sciences encompassing biology, chemistry, physics and geology.
Dedicated would be an understatement since these Bowlers roll up their sleeves at least six hours every weekend for four to five months to learn these complex concepts and practice for the NOSB competition.
Luckily, the students also are coached by a dedicated team: Teresa Springer who has coached the aquarium team since 2015 and Rob Edwards, the team’s science advisor. Both Teresa and Rob have day jobs: youth programs coordinator at the aquarium and port engineer at NOAA respectively.
For the 2019 competition, the Oregon Coast Aquarium Team garnered sixth place nationally against youth in other states. However, in their region, the last two years Nerdi Nautili has come out on top of all the other competitors. How many young people does the average reader know who are willing to crack the books on off-time to compete in “a buzzer-style multiple choice and longer, critical thinking-based questions covered cross-disciplinary ocean science knowledge”? This year’s theme, luckily for Genevieve, was around how technology (engineering) is needed to observe the ocean.
The added spark for the 17-year-old is the competition’s challenge in looking at how ocean observations address societal needs. Genevieve’s long-term passion is tackling toxic plastics clogging the oceans and getting into the food chain through micro-fragments.
Politics, Pollution and Gen Z
“Pollution is the one big thing we have tied to our consumption practices, our lifestyles,” Genevieve said. “We have to figure out how to reduce plastic use. The problem is when you take away something like plastic which we have relied on for years, human nature is to resist this. And, whatever scientists come up to replace plastic, we don’t know if what we replaced it with will be creating negative environmental effects in 20 years.”
Genevieve also talks about her frustration with politics. “There are a lot of people with many different viewpoints. But a lot of people don’t listen and just don’t want to learn others’ viewpoints.” She finds it especially frustrating that she has had regular one-sided debates with one fellow in particular who wants to be an astronomer “but is unwilling to even talk about climate change because his mind’s made up it isn’t happening.”
Yet our conversation goes back to pollution and plastics. “There are so many problems caused by wastefulness and the fact that we use up so many materials. There’s a need for my generation to stop it while we can.”
For her mother, Marilyne, “I see the tide turning. Young people are getting involved and are fighting for policies like gun safety and climate change. There’s so much more activism than when I was in high school.”
Class is Where Your Heart and Mind Are
Both mother and daughter agree that there is more to school than being in a classroom. In fact, Genevieve’s grandmother, the retired teacher, is coming around to the fact that teaching can happen around a tidepool or in an estuary. Yet the conundrum for Marilyne is money, and the lack thereof for school-sponsored fieldtrips and the sorts of opportunities her daughter has had.
“School-sponsored field trips level the playing field for some kids who aren’t lucky enough to have parents who can afford to take them places.”
For Genevieve, who speaks and reads Mandarin after her first five years of education at a Mandarin immersion school in Portland, traveling to other countries is also another vital force in understanding how to gain the tools to begin solving all the global problems caused by consumption, waste and those economic powerhouses that are also throw-away cultures.
She is aware that the big push for STEM has caused some young people — like one of her friends — to push aside other passions and drives, like in the liberal arts. Her friend was always interested in writing and becoming a professional writer, but because of the emphasis to get girls into STEM, she pushed that aside and went with the flow.
Genevieve will be doing the science while her friend writes science fiction novels — or so at least that’s what the three of us pondered in our interview.
Not everything is oceans, though, for the young Coblentz-Strong: she likes reading history, both European and Egyptian. She has listened countless times to the musical, “Hamilton.” And her indulgence is a TV series, “The Office.” She also draws and once was involved in drama and theatre.
Her mother says she’s a good kid because she’s kind, respects people, follows through on things, is curious and has a desire to learn and experience new things.
Genevieve attributes her love of oceans to her mom and her interest in the sciences and engineering to her dad. We can call her Oregon’s Own Oceans Kid, and even though she loves Oregon and wants to go to school at OSU, Genevieve, with her Chinese language skills, sees herself “maybe one day going to China and helping them with their oceans.”
Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” For 17-year-old Genevieve Coblentz-Strong, all things are connected, and for any female oceanographer or marine biologist, all parts of the world, all sciences, all cultures, all life on Earth are tied to the ocean.
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”