When she was 6 years old, Haley Plaas fell in love on a trip to Sea World. The object of her affection: Shamu the killer whale.
Plaas’ interest in sea life ultimately led to a major in marine science and biology, but it also instilled in her a passion for sea conservation.
On March 3, Plaas will be among 50 other Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science students working with local children in an event called Art Sea, an annual beachside program to educate them about an important but endangered habitat – the ocean.
“Our vision is that if we can help kids at an early age appreciate and understand the ocean and how it works, then when they are older, they will want to conserve it and make conscious efforts to help protect the ocean,” Plaas said.
Plaas and the other UM volunteers are members of Ocean Kids, a STEM outreach program founded 10 years ago by RSMAS professor Jill Richardson.
Richardson said she founded Ocean Kids because she wanted to work with her students to share scientific discoveries in marine science with children and inspire a love for the ocean.
“The goal was to embrace community and help undergrads recognize responsibility,” Richardson said. “It has been amazing to see how many UM students are dedicated to their community.”
Plaas, a junior, has been an active member since her freshman year.
“The whole premise of Ocean Kids is that we are trying to create the next generation of students and kids who love the ocean and want to help protect it,” she said.
For the past two years, Ocean Kids has collaborated with Big Blue & You, a local nonprofit co-founded by RSMAS alumna Danni Washington in 2008, for the event.
The five-hour event begins at 11 a.m. at the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park and offers a variety of activities, from beach cleanup and yoga to interactive marine-science-themed stations led by UM students. Each station will feature a local artist who will help the kids create their own art pieces, which will be displayed at the end of the event.
Last year, the event had a squid dissection tank and a “Sleeping Beauties” station, which showcased a toadfish that would fall asleep when turned upside down. Kids were able to put their hands in the tank and turn the toadfish themselves.
“When you have an animal for those kids to interact with that they get to touch themselves … you get a really awesome response,” Plaas said. “That’s when they freak out.”
Rachel Sandquist, a member of the Ocean Kids executive board, said she enjoys bringing Ocean Kids and Art Sea together to inspire kids.
“You can take everything you’ve learned about marine science and show stuff to kids for the first time,” said Sandquist, a sophomore majoring in marine science and microbiology. “They are leaving the event with a different perspective.”
Students interested in volunteering at Art Sea on March 3 can email Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org, Plaas at email@example.com or Sandquist at firstname.lastname@example.org. The event will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Dr.