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Scuba at High School: Diving into Outdoor Education

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This post is by Kalle Palmer, 12th grade Physics teacher, High Tech High

"Scuba diving in high school? I wish we had that when I was in high school!", the clerk at the dive shop gushed when I told her I was starting a dive club. Of course, that is the exact sentiment that motivated me to start the dive club. I had always dreamed of being a marine biologist until I was in high school. The monotony of text book readings, seriously constrained labs, and rote memorization left me uninspired and fatigued in high school. Ten years later, I was working a corporate job and came home each day ambivalent and bored about where I was. I signed up for a scuba class on the weekends, determined to do something exciting. By the end of my first open-water dive, I was hooked. I felt drive and fire come back into my life.

Shortly after, I began teaching scuba in addition to working as a scientific diver. People, especially teenagers, were engaged in my classes. They asked about the ocean, worked on their communication and planning, all while having fun pursuing a hobby. I became fascinated with the gap between academic rhetoric and hands-on experience with the content being studied in school. Traditionally, environmental education emphasizes informing people as a solution to inspire change. Unfortunately, this linear model is not effective in practice. Becoming aware of environmental problems does not connect students with the environment or foster a relationship and curiosity towards these phenomenal physical spaces. Rather, environmental education often highlights the tension between the environment and development and commercial appropriation. Alternatively, transformative eco-education combines immersing students in the environments while they are studying and facilitates a personal experience that may increase their sense of content comprehension as well as connection.

Based on my background, the ultimate experience I could facilitate to provide this type of transformative eco-education was to get kids scuba certified through a school-based club. I identified three primary goals for the club:

  1. To impart scientific skills and foster a connection to the ocean environment that may result in behavioral changes, including an increase in curiosity and respect.
  2. To foster personal growth in my divers. This includes empowering students to overcome fears and achieve challenging goals as well as support students' sense of agency to connect to their communities, create change, and collaborate with others.
  3. To promote equity. Inspired by Diving with a Purpose, a group of African-American divers that document slave wrecks, and my own research experience in Micronesia, I am seeking to give a diverse group of youth skills to challenge the dominant narratives in marine biology and anthropology and tell the tales, or research the issues, that are significant to them.  

Getting HTH Scuba started took significant time and effort. I worked closely with the director of my school, Dr. Kaleb Rashad, and sought feedback from teachers and recreational and scientific scuba peers alike. Students submitted applications with parental approval and were selected to join the club by lottery. The first five months involved building club culture and a background in the various ways diving could be used. Prior to certification in June 2018, I held a two-week elective class, during which students completed the academics with me. Scuba academics involve learning about the physiological response of the human body to depth and pressure conditions while diving, the chemistry of breathing, and the physics of buoyancy and depth so as to safely plan and execute dives. Students also learn about underwater communication and how they can support their dive buddies.

I partnered with a local Scuba shop, House of Scuba, for confined and open water dives. Funding was provided with some donations from student families; Blue Dot, an eco-education non-profit run by teachers at High Tech High; as well as some private donations. As of June 18, 2018, seven students are scuba certified.

The club organically integrates deeper learning competencies into its activities. The elective introduction and two-week intensive engaged students in rigorous academic work. Students had to collaborate and communicate with peers when planning snorkeling trips and dives, evaluating the safety of their dive plans. Finally, and perhaps most significant, students actively directed their own education and experience in the club. Initially they perceived that simply getting certified to dive was the end goal; however, conversations and exit tickets from students revealed that they now saw their certification as a gateway tool that they could use for future educational, professional, and recreational experiences.

Final thoughts

I started this piece on a personal note and it feels appropriate to end with one. As educators, there is always a demand for our attention and time. We have to navigate these requests and if we choose to take on extra commitments, they need to be worthy of that time.  As I was scheduling dive days and making weekend trips to the shop with my four-month old daughter, I second-guessed myself once or twice. However, HTH Scuba ultimately exceeded my expectations of "worthiness."  I am working to develop a model for transformative eco-education in an immersive, inspiring, and challenging way. Students are connecting with the aquatic world, each other and themselves in new and unexpected ways. There are many rules in scuba but some of my favorites also apply to outdoor education--plan your dive, never dive alone, dive within your limits, be safe, have fun, and always keep breathing. Enough from me, here are four reflections from my student divers to close this out.

  • "Learning how to scuba dive was my very first "aha" moment... It became something that I want to take with me for the rest of my life and into college. This experience became self-discovery into what I want my future to look like and I can't wait to see where I end up."
  • "The most important thing I learned was that I should pursue whatever makes me the happiest, and I think diving does that. I know we have only done four open water dives, and I hate to be dramatic, but I can see myself doing this till the day I die--as a career, or even just as a hobby. I learned that in reality, the ocean isn't something to be afraid of, it's something to appreciate and observe as much as you possibly can."
  • "The most interesting thing I saw under the water had to be the canyon, I could see how the canyon had a deep dark opening that gave me chills apart form how cold it actually was. I was honestly almost in tears of joy when I saw the field of those crabs looking back at us."
  • "The most important thing I learned personally is how much I am capable of doing if I set my mind to it. As much as I enjoy the ocean I still had a small ounce of fear for it. On our first dive I just had to mentally encourage myself and found that I was fine and able to do something I never thought I'd be able to do."


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