The Living Lab

Destination City Heights

By: Jonathan Lancaster

Years of development, planning and funding are about to culminate in the Grand Opening of the Living Lab, a partnership between the Ocean Discovery Institute and the San Diego Unified School District to build a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the study of science and conservation with its location in the heart of City Heights. Understandably ecstatic about the opening is the Executive Director and Founder of Ocean Discovery Institute, Shara Fisler. Most days she can be found on site at the newly constructed facility overseeing its development and enthusiastically providing walking tours of the grounds to those who have supported the effort and others newly introduced to the concept.


We connected with Shara one day to learn more about the project.


How and when did the Ocean Discovery Institute come into being?


Having completed my Masters in Marine Management at the University of Miami, I chose to return to San Diego to join the faculty at USD. My hobby was riding Dressage and of course I wanted to be by the ocean, so San Diego seemed the perfect venue. While on the faculty, I was contacted by a group associated with Upward Bound that helped children from low-income families succeed at school. I left USD and worked with some of these students, which led me to realize that my passion was focused on helping children in these neighborhoods. In 1999 I founded Aquatic Adventures with its main focus on engaging children in science.


We were first housed on Mission Bay in a little kayak closet that construction volunteers put together for us. We did this during the summer months having children sent to us from a variety of groups. We know that children coming from low-income families really needed to have full year mentoring beyond just a summer class. We saw how the children began to get excited about what they could do in science and have them actually begin to think about college. The eventual goal from the summer classes was to provide a tuition free model that would provide science to those who would otherwise never find it in their school. We then began to look for a new location with the ultimate goal of locating in City Heights. It was then that we renamed it the Ocean Discovery Institute.


Was it purposely located in the City Heights neighborhood in San Diego?


Absolutely. Our goal was two-fold. Empower children to break the cycle of poverty and provide them with a vehicle to move toward better schooling and job placement.


How is it financed?


We are tuition free so we knew that we had to create a relationship with our donor community. Consistent donors are our base and it is they who try doing so much to fund the program. We also have our annual gala and do seek support from both private and federal grants. All play a key role and without their support could not have accomplished the great results that we have seen in recent years.


How large is your present staff?


At the moment we have 28 on staff. It will grow some when we open the new lab. We have a large number of volunteers who receive a stipend from Americorps, which is a federal program. With the expansion in space, not only will we be able to add staff, and increase the number of volunteers, who play a positive role, as importantly we will be able to add programs and increase the number of days that students can actively be engaged. For everyone, it is a huge step forward and needless to say we are very excited.


Do geographical boundaries play a role in who attends the sessions?


They do. Our model is predicated upon what we describe as a "School Shed". City Heights was our choice because we wanted to go into an underserved community where in fact we actually find young people who just want the opportunity. It is amazing to see the results that can come from the experience. Within that "School Shed" there are a number of schools where our staff attends to teach within the classroom and from that pool of students come those who choose to continue lessons at our facility.


Are the youth that attend considered students and are they receiving credits for their participation?


We do consider them students, however, they do not receive school credits, but they are learning. They also have the opportunity to come to sessions at the Institute itself. We do have students come for added sessions, however, we have had limited resources. As previously mentioned, once opened, The Living Lab will greatly increase our space and we will even be able to expand on some of our programs.


Are the parents of those who attend the added sessions required to be an active participant?


Yes they are and have become willing participants. We consider it tuition free, but not commitment free. The parents must also participate. We find in this community that the parents desperately want a better life for their children so it is such a great thing to envision and experience.


Is it strict attendance or strictly voluntary?


In school it is strict attendance, while at the Institute it is voluntary.


Was it an instant success within the community or were there growing pains?


Definitely there were growing pains. Working within a community, it takes trust and trust takes time. You have to prove that you are not going anywhere. With the schools, we started with one and grew the program to all schools with the "School Shed".


How many students actually attend during the course of the school year?


In all of the programs we are servicing 6,000 today, but once The Living Lab is open, we will be able to handle the 10,000 that are in the school community and also grow our program with additional staff, additional lessons, etc.


Is Oceanography the main focus of the learning sessions?


We use the ocean sciences as a platform to teach every area of science, technology, engineering, math, and conservation.


Have there been success stories among the students?


Certainly. Once they go through the program and hopefully enter college, we find that some come back to work as mentors, all are within the workforce, many become donors themselves and some have joined our board.


The Institute has become an overwhelming success. What do you consider to be the prevailing factor in achieving that mark?


There are several. The critical one would be the passion that is involved within the organization. The staff and volunteers truly are driven by what is possible and the results that they have seen. Commitment is another, by following through on that passion. Clarity of mission is key as we help young lives transform through science. Our staff is focused and it helps us to get really good at what we do. Culture would be another. Paying attention to what we do and paying attention to our culture within our organization. We believe that our students will succeed and that shapes everything that we do.


In 2016, you received the CNN Hero Award. Did that come as a surprise or did Anderson Cooper call you well in advance?


He did not. We knew that we were one of the finalists and a member of his staff called for more information and references. We then learned that we received the award among the thousands of candidates.


What has been your greatest challenge overseeing the operation of the Institute?


Not knowing what you don't know. I started this at a very young age and I have had a lot of experts come in to teach us as we have strived to grow it stronger. We try to be ready to learn how to better the system. We also want to replicate the model and that is a huge challenge. Building our community of donors is a big part of it.


What has been your greatest disappointment over these many years?


For me it is all a learning process, so whatever set backs there may be along the way, I use that experience to better understand the process and make the necessary adjustments along the way so that it is an overall positive experience.


What goals have you in mind for the Institute in the coming years?


We know that we have something that works ~ our students know it. We see kids moving out of poverty and moving into positions of leadership in science and other fields of endeavor. My goal is to replicate the process and grow the model.


What has been your greatest satisfaction in overseeing the Institute?


The graduates. Watching the students move on to successful careers. They are committed to making a difference in the world. They are the ones who want to give back to their communities and having followed our graduates over the years, convinces me that they are and will continue to be the role models for others to follow.