The Epic Story of Team Marine

A few weeks ago, ACE blogged about a study on the efficacy of the plastic bag ban in the city of Santa Monica, CA, which was the culmination of two years of solid effort by members of Team Marine, an eco-action group at Santa Monica High School, also known as "Samohi". They even made a video about it. 

Faculty Sponsor Ben Kay + Team Marine leaders

As both an ACE staffer and a Samohi graduate, it has been my absolute pleasure to work with the team over the last 3 years. ACE’s relationship with Team Marine began before I was even hired, when my two former colleagues presented the ACE assembly at Samohi’s Focus The Nation Day in February 2010 (old school!). Since then, Team Marine members have consistently brought the force - from winning the classic Star Wars competition in Spring 2011 for completing the most climate projects, to rocking the Biggest Loser: Energy competition, to attending multiple ACE Leadership Trainings, and recently marching in solidarity with other ACE student leaders at the Forward on Climate Rally in downtown Los Angeles.

I touched base with the team recently during one of their afternoon meetings, talking on the phone with key members and their Faculty Sponsor, Ben Kay, a marine biologist and science teacher extraordinaire at Samohi and Santa Monica College.

“People can go out and hold signs and rally for a cause, but at the end of the day, what are the politicians going to listen to? Sound science... Ideally,” said Mr. Kay. At the same time, he noted that science itself is not going to be responsible for creating change. Voices and people backing the movement are going to create change. Science informs the public and informs counsel. Then people make decisions based on the opinions of the majority.

With 50,400 observations recorded over the last two years of their study on the ban of plastic bags in Santa Monica, Team Marine is currently in the process of collecting another month of data. Another 40 observations, i.e. visits to the 5 local grocery stores observed in the study, will be completed to supplement the Team’s records, and furthering their ability to link sound science with people’s daily lives and actions.

One Team Marine student offered: “The bag ban is an amazing way to get the ball rolling. Next, maybe we’ll work to ban plastic water bottles, utensils. There’s so much more that we can do.” She noted: “The 5 gyres don’t just consist of plastic bags,” referring to the swirling patches of plastic debris and other trash that have accumulated in ocean currents around the world. “That’s not the only problem. If we can show that the ban works on plastic bags, then we can do the same for other polluting plastic products.”

There is always more work to be done. Recently, Team Marine members had the opportunity to testify at City Hall for the Santa Monica Sustainability Bill of Rights ordinance, which would give rights to the natural environment itself, in order to maintain habitable and healthy standards for air quality, water, food and natural systems, benefiting the city’s residents in kind.

Says another team member: “We’re the future generations of Santa Monica. [The city] needs to protect what we need to survive. We’re known for our beaches. I’ve seen the devastation that the ‘first flush’* causes when all the trash comes out of the storm drain and onto the sand. Nature has it’s own right to survive.” [*The 'first flush' refers to the first rains of the season that wash street debris into storm drains and out to the sea].

Also on the agenda is the Team’s electric car conversion project. Finally nearing completion, this is an endeavor that has spanned the last few years. The Team was gifted a 1973 Volkswagen Super Beetle by a former member’s family, for the express purpose of converting it into an emissions-free vehicle. Having spent countless afternoons in their school’s auto body shop (with the blessing of Samohi’s indomitable shop teacher), the car should be complete by the end of May. In partnership with Wells Fargo and other sponsors (including ACE, which awarded Team Marine two small grants towards the car project over the last couple of years), Team Marine will use the vehicle to send a message to the masses.

“This could end up being the biggest, most change-advancing project we’ve ever done,” explains Mr. Kay. Other students and teams across the country have completed similar conversions, but the Super Beetle is poised to be the longest range electric vehicle ever produced by a group of teens. Mr. Kay notes, “This is not so much about being in the green spotlight, as it is about using media and outreach to leverage the cause.”

Just wrapping their heads around mechanical and electrical engineering is a feat in and of itself for Team Marine members. But with a red carpet roll-out in the works, and support from their sponsors for educational outreach and media stunts, the Team has the opportunity to greatly advance viewership, readership, and understanding about a clean energy future. Their projects, in addition to their participation in science competitions, provides a framework, a timeline, motivation, and most importantly, a combined multimedia, educational, and social networking platform to communicate their message on campus, in their community, and at the national and international level.

Naps are critical to success.

Just last week, Team Marine members Edie Cote, Angelina Hwang, and Ivan Morales were busy setting up at the California Science Center, where the 62nd Annual California State Science Fair took place over April 15-16th. Students from more than 400 schools throughout California convened to compete within 22 different scientific categories. The perks of attendance included getting to see the Endeavor space shuttle for free, and lounging in the Center’s rose garden - naps are a must when you’re working hard.

On the heels of a first place win in the Environmental Management category at the LA County Science Fair, the Team was energized but uncertain about their prospects within the Behavioral and Social Sciences category at State. Team Marine Captain, Edie Cote remarked that their new category held 25 projects, whereas just 10 candidates had vied for the Environmental Management prize. Nevertheless, the category felt like the right fit. “Part of our project is looking at the consumer market,” observed Edie, “and how their choices changed.”

4th Place Medal

While the team dynamic changes from year to year, their success is due in large part to the consistent efforts of a small core of team members. The culture of determination is one that is passed on to each generation of Team Marine. Faculty Sponsor Ben Kay measures success on goals set and achieved. While other clubs on Samohi’s campus may attract higher rates of membership, they generally fizzle out when it comes to tangible action and success. Kay notes that 4-6 members within Team Marine can provide the critical mass necessary to achieve greater and greater goals. Cote, Hwang and Morales agree. With their professionally prepared poster board, student-generated press releases, and binders filled with raw data, their presentation came together beautifully. They exited the Science Center with a 4th place medal.

When asked about their personal motivation, the Science Fair crew shared similar stories: learning the facts about plastic pollution in Mr. Kay’s Marine Biology class, relating this knowledge to their personal experience of growing up in a city by the sea, and seeing the effects of pollution on the beaches firsthand. Hwang added that when she first encountered Team Marine (on a yearbook photo assignment): “They seemed passionate, all about the cause. [The team] met all the goals I wanted to meet for the environment.”

This unrelenting willingness to meet challenges head-on is an additional influence on the team’s roster of accomplishments. While inevitably college résumés can be a motivating factor for students looking to join the team, for the core members, college is just the next step in a lifetime dedicated to environmental action. Edie and Ivan are graduating in June, hoping to study art and biology, respectively. Edie will likely use her art for advocacy, and plans to join or start an environmental club of her own at Boston University. Ivan plans to go to school in New York, and will be “sticking with the environment." Angelina still has a year left on Team Marine, and plans for next year’s team to be good as, or even better, than this year’s team (Upon hearing this, Ivan and Edie pause - and then jokingly respond with a “Nope!” Like they say, a little competition never hurt anybody :-)).

On the topic of future plans, Edie says: “It’s amazing, crazy how much work needs to be done. It’s not easy. But the fact is that we’ve done so much... why stop? There’s still so much to do. We got this!” I mention to the group that ACE has the latter motto plastered all over our water bottles and binders, and they all laugh.

Angelina chimes in: “Team Marine is a lot of work. Two after school meetings per week, sometimes 3 hours each. One lunchtime meeting. Despite all of that, look at what we’ve achieved. Even though winning and achievements aren’t everything, they’re definitely motivation to keep going.” Ivan agrees: “After all the hard work we’ve put in, there’s this nice feeling when you see how much you’ve done, and how much you’ve accomplished.”

Before we sign off, Edie shares a farewell transmission that ACE Educators often share with our own students: “The first step is to take action. That’s the most important part. Making that first step is always the hardest, but it’s always the most rewarding step that you can take.”