Felicia Van Stolk
"Environmental education is so important because it connects students in the most natural way that they learn. Being immersed in nature allows their instinctual sense of wonder to take over, and curiosity drives the deepest kind of learning."
We've asked Felicia Van Stolk, one of O'Neill Sea Odyssey's past students, to share her thoughts about her experience with, and path beyond, the OSO program. Here's what she had to say...
I’m the Education Manager at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History today, but I attended the O’Neill Sea Odyssey program as a 5th grader at Valencia Elementary School. My classmates and I all thought it was so cool that our teacher, Patricia O’Neal, had the same name, even though it was spelled differently. While I don’t remember specific details of the program and curriculum, I do remember being on the catamaran and how exhilarating it was! Looking back on that experience now, OSO was certainly an influence in my path to studying marine biology and eventually applying my love of science and nature (especially the ocean) to environmental education.
As a student at UCLA, I majored in biology but managed to fulfill all of my requirements by taking marine science courses—at some point it became clear that I should just change my major to marine science. Throughout my years as an undergrad, I also helped instruct SCUBA classes where, for the first time, I was able to combine my love of the ocean with teaching.
That passion continued after college when I started teaching at the Marine Science Institute in Redwood City. That’s when it suddenly clicked and I remembered participating in a similar program before (OSO). When I was enjoying the Sea Odyssey program I wasn’t aware that what I was learning was “environmental education”—it only occurred to me now as an educator myself.
At the Museum, I’m the go-to “ocean person” and I love taking care of our tide pool exhibit and leading beach cleanups. In this context, it is fun to connect the land to the sea and approach teaching about natural history in a holistic way, tying all ecosystems together.
Environmental education is so important because it connects students in the most natural way that they learn. Being immersed in nature allows their instinctual sense of wonder to take over, and curiosity drives the deepest kind of learning. All types of learners can benefit from environmental education because it is so student-driven, and students who may not thrive in traditional classrooms can find things to connect to in the natural world.
I'm so happy that the new standards now emphasize how to think over a list of topics and vocabulary words. While the standards and trends in education are shifting to embrace that style of teaching now, environmental education programs like O'Neill Sea Odyssey have been doing this from the very beginning—facilitating exploration and allowing students to wonder about what they’re experiencing. We also know, anecdotally and by facilitating projects or keeping track of past students, that when a person loves even one thing in the natural world, they are more likely to continue to be curious about it and be willing to take action toward conserving it.
What does the ocean mean to you?
The ocean has always been a special place to me, and it means so many things in my life. It has been the meeting place for family and friends with so many cherished memories on the shore. It is also where I go to think—when I am sad or facing some challenge, it puts things into perspective and has a cleansing effect. As a diver, I feel just as much at home underwater as I do on shore. These are all things that many people who live on the shore may feel. Knowing how things work in the marine environment, recognizing animals and their behavior, being able to read the water, all of the things I learned by studying the sea has only served to deepen my connection and I am so gratified by this intimacy with the ocean.
Thank you, Felicia, for sharing your experience and unique perspective. Your role as an environmental educator is a testament to your commitment to conservation. We're grateful for your support and dedication.