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Project aims to bring HOPE to community

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A PROJECT that aims to produce the first CNMI marine biologist is focused on sixth graders.

Project Healthy Oceans and People Empowerment or HOPE, is a 12-week, no-cost science program that has been a dream of the Friends of the Marianas Trench since 2008, project director and Friends of the Marianas Trench executive director Laurie Peterka told Variety on Monday.

The project was launched earlier this month and is designed to use experiential learning to help CNMI students understand experimental results, inferences, models and data.

Middle school students have been gathering at Guma Sakman on Austerity Mondays since the first week of this month to learn about marine life.

“What we know for sure is that our students still need to have tactile learning. Sometimes, learning from a book... or learning from a video is not enough,” said Peterka.

“Our goal here is to show them how what they’re actually learning from school is real in their everyday life… and that [they can be] inspired to think that maybe there is something bigger than [themselves].”

College students, community development partners, and ocean elders are all involved in the project, that combines traditional knowledge about the environment with current Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, or STEM, principles.

College students are interviewed and trained before joining the team that organizes the learning sessions of the project.

Outreach specialists from community development partners such as the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality bring a twist to the traditional classroom setting by providing more hands-on activities while complying with Covid-19 social distancing directives.

Elders such as master navigator Antonio “Tony” Piailug, the son of the great Mau Piailug, share their traditional knowledge of the sea.

Middle school students enrolled in Project HOPE listen attentively to a presenter at Guma Sakman on Monday. Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

Peterka said Project HOPE was brought into fruition after years of planning and coordination, which included  applying for federal grants and reaching out to the community to learn what issues are most important to the public.

Research was first conducted by the project coordinators, collecting standardized test scores of sixth-grade students over the course of three years.

The project coordinators then presented the argument that they could improve those test scores through Project HOPE, targeting 135  sixth graders.

“We’re going to try to change their lives,” Peterka said.

If the pilot program succeeds,  more will follow until ultimately, they will be held every year and hopefully inspire more students to become marine scientists, she added.

The goal is to have 30 local marine scientists by 2030, and these will include those fresh out of college or have their doctorate in marine science, Peterka said.

“We want to see our population really find an interest and understand the correlation between modern science and traditional science,” she added.

She noted that the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the project launch date, which was originally set for February 2020.

Enrollment was low due to the global health crisis, but it picked up as Covid-19 restrictions gradually loosened, she added.

But because it was unable to reach its initial target audience before the start of the new school year, the project currently includes seventh-graders.

There are 17 students participating in the project and they are from Chacha, Hopwood, and Tanapag middle schools.

Peterka said the program is anticipated to occur indefinitely, 12 weeks every semester, with the next batch of students projected to be enrolled by February 2021.

When asked how the community can help with Project HOPE, Peterka said, “Send us your sixth graders.”

She added, “The best thing that can happen is that they would encourage their sixth grade students in public schools… and support their science teachers and principals.”

Peterka said that Project HOPE is currently only offered to public school students because that is how its federal grant was written.

However, this may be adjusted in the near future in order to include private school students, depending on what the spring enrollment will look like, she said.

Every Austerity Monday. Rep. Sheila Babauta, who is also involved in the project, transports students to Guma Sakman for Project HOPE.

“I come and I learn with them and swim with them,” she said. “I’m just here to ensure that the kids up north are able to take advantage of this opportunity because transportation is always an issue for our community up there, so I just thought that I’d help fill in the gap.”

She added, “I think it’s so important for them to learn about this because…if this program can influence their behavior, even in the smallest way, they can learn more about our coral reef, about our ocean, and about really working toward a sustainable environment and community…. I think it’ll benefit all of us.”

She also continues to reach out to parents of students who are regulars at the Tanapag Youth Center for another project that she is passionate about.

“I strongly encourage our parents to just stay on the lookout for any programs that are available for our youth because we have so many educators and experts coordinating these opportunities for our community,” she said.

“I’ve seen [these students] grow connected with one another…. It takes a lot of time for them to just get comfortable with each other, even students attending the same school. [Connecting] is so important because they’re going to be working together in the future, and hopefully even serve in the Legislature together,” she added.

She expressed her gratitude to all who have collaborated and continue to collaborate on Project HOPE.

“Collaboration is key. The more people get involved, the more resources we can share, especially during this time when resources are scarce and there’s so much uncertainty about the future of businesses and the future of our economy,” she said.

For more information about Project HOPE, visit www.friendsmarianatrench.org

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