Graduate students talk to middle schoolers

Graduate students presented the films in Carteret County classrooms and led discussions. Photo courtesy UNC IMS.

When the international Beneath the Waves Film Festival came to North Carolina, the creativity and messages in the award-winning short films were key elements in the two-day event’s storyline.

But the films also shared top billing with graduate students who organized multiple screenings for and discussions with 250 students in several Carteret County schools. It was Beneath the Waves’ largest single-day, K-12 event to date. The screenings were a signature event for the North Carolina Science Festival. North Carolina Sea Grant also was among the co-sponsors.

In the end, who stole the show? Youngsters — possibly future marine scientists — at the public screening at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

“Reaching out to the youth is incredibly important. That’s one of our primary goals. They are the next generation of voters, the next generation of engineers, the next generation of people driving this country forward,” explained Beneath the Waves Film Festival co-founder Austin Gallagher, a doctoral student at the University of Miami, in a Public Radio East interview.

Film topics ranged from nearby North Carolina oyster reefs and hurricanes to far-off species near Baja California and the global dangers of plastics in the ocean. In discussions after each film, youngsters posed direct questions to experts from university marine labs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state agencies.

The students’ queries — seeking local data and conclusions — drew spirited applause and prizes for best questions. The discussions ended the scheduled program. But in North Carolina, the festival overall also offered a few beginnings.

Not Just the Waves

Kelvin, the N.C. Science Festival mascot, on a banner.

Kelvin, the mascot for the N.C. Science Festival, sits on a poster listing the partners who brought the Beneath the Waves film screenings to Carteret County. Photo courtesy UNC IMS.

The Beneath the Waves Film Festival offers a simple mission: To give the oceans a voice through digital media and scientific storytelling. Film topics vary, but all relate to a marine/aquatic issue. Each must have a strong story — all told in 10 minutes or less.

The concept grew out of a conversation Gallagher had with co-founder Erica Staaterman after a day of research diving in 2009. They wanted to find ways to share images and messages with audiences that do not read research journals. The festival now operates as a nonprofit, receiving hundreds of submissions and sharing films at screenings around the world each year.

Organizers also have added an annual Youth Making Ripples competition for filmmakers under 18.

Avery Paxton, a doctoral student in marine ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who coordinated the local screenings, hopes to continue to have such events to showcase local marine science and encourage similar creativity.

Based at the Institute of Marine Sciences, Paxton’s research focuses on offshore, hard- bottom reefs. She also is part of a team of graduate students from IMS, the Duke University Marine Lab, and NC State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology who collaborate on science communications outreach. Their efforts include the Scientific Research and Education Network, or SciREN, connecting K-12 teachers and nonformal educators with researchers.

Paxton sees such efforts converging. Beneath the Waves offered films and discussions on topics including climate change, aquaculture, marine debris and conservation. Several films focused exclusively on coastal North Carolina systems, while others showed ecosystems and issues with relevance here. “One film, Saving North Carolina’s Oyster Reefs, was developed by IMS graduate students and earned national honors from Beneath the Waves in 2013,” she notes.

The recent focus on these films will inspire new efforts at many levels, she adds. “Here in North Carolina, we have many diverse and vibrant marine ecosystems. As scientists, we are motivated to share our research that we conduct in these local systems through visual media. Events such as the Beneath the Waves Film Festival are so rewarding because they allow us to communicate our science to the broader public.”

Watch a video from the UNC-Chapel Hill research office about the 2014 Beneath the Waves events in Carteret County below.

Beneath the Waves from UNC Research.

Look for a story about SciREN in the autumn issue of Coastwatch.

This article was published in the Summer 2014 issue of Coastwatch.

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