The first comment Erin Sams Cooper usually has to address when she talks about her employer, the education non-profit Teens4Oceans, is “but… you’re based in Colorado.” And while the Rocky Mountains around Boulder were covered by an ocean a few million years ago, it’s not the first place most people would think of when asked where to start an ocean education program.
However, for Cooper, a former Ohio Sea Grant Knauss Fellow and now a program director for Teens4Oceans, the nonprofit is the perfect place to combine her love of biology with a dedication to all types of environmental education.
“There are so many people who live in this state that appreciate all kinds of nature,” Cooper says. “They love the mountains, they ski in the winter, but they often go diving in the summer. So any conversation about the ocean seems to come full circle more often than you would think.”
Cooper started working for Teens4Oceans after she completed a Knauss Fellowship at NOAA’s Office of Education. The fellowship provides a unique experience to graduate students who have an interest in ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources and in the national policy decisions affecting those resources. The fellowship matches students with government host offices in and around Washington, D.C. for a one-year paid position.
During her year at the Office of Education, Cooper had the chance to work with representatives from all across NOAA’s education community, organizing monthly meetings and conferences and sitting in on grant reviews for environmental literacy programs.
“I wasn’t allowed to really aid in the decision process, but I got to read all these different applications from these incredible organizations from all over the country and I was there for all the conversations, which was pretty cool,” Cooper remembers.
She also helped train educators to use NOAA’s Science on a Sphere system, which uses computers and video projectors to display data on what is essentially a giant animated globe. Science on a Sphere has been installed in over 100 museums and science centers all over the world and is generally used to help large groups of young students connect what they’re seeing on the screen with the information they are learning at the museum or in the classroom.
“The data sets show things like visualizations of climate data, of sea surface temperatures, of migration patterns of different species,” Cooper explains. “All these different things can visually stimulate somebody to think in a more creative way about how earth’s systems function and interact with each other.”
In addition to the professional experience she gained during her fellowship, Cooper also treasures the connections she made with other Knauss Fellows during her year in Washington.
“D.C. is a very fast-paced place, and it’s important to both work hard and also find ways to enjoy your time off,” she says. “And that’s easy to do when you have a large group of other people that are in the same boat, which is a pretty unique aspect of the fellowship.