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How San Diego’s High-Tech Fair brought me back to the basics

Marine scientist Amber Starks on how she adapts to her audience to find effective ways to talk about the transformations that active oil platforms undergo to become thriving marine ecosystems.

There comes a time when the useful life of an offshore oil and gas platform comes to an end, at least when it comes to drilling for oil, and that’s when I dive in. As a marine scientist and co-founder of Blue Latitudes, I’m on a mission to re-purpose offshore oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs through the Rigs to Reefs (RtR) program.

Seems straightforward? It’s not. However, I believe one of the most important aspects of my job as a scientist is learning how to communicate complex topics to a wide variety of audiences. Case in point, how to tell people that those oil platforms out there in the oceans, the same ones that are the source of massive oil spills, are also thriving marine ecosystems.

Communicating science presents a new set of challenges when working with middle- or high school-aged students. Their often unfiltered questions, like ‘won’t the sharks eat all the fish’ or ‘will there be pollution to the sea life’, have left me totally speechless, and dared me to dig deeper into my understanding of how to communicate RtR concepts, and on a higher level, the value of a healthy ocean. Now that’s the real challenge – and one I came face to face with recently while participating in San Diego’s High-Tech Fair.

Kids at a booth at a science fair
Students at a science-themed booth. | Photo courtesy of author.

The High-Tech Fair, held in San Diego’s famed Balboa park, welcomed students in grades 7–12 from around the county to learn about real-life applications of STEM-related industries. What makes the fair special is that students learn about these fields in a meaningful way through demonstrations and hands-on activities. As a local San Diego company, we were honored that the Blue Latitudes Foundation was asked not just to participate, but to share what we did as marine scientists in a way that would be ‘sticky’. Sticky ideas are simple, yet profound, and remain with a student for days, months, or even years after the interaction.

At first my team grappled with the design of our “interactive” activity, turning down ideas that seemed too simple or not age appropriate. One idea was a poster board graphic that depicted an oil platform, and a game in which the students would be challenged to place marine life on the structure. These marine creatures ranged from the Garibaldi (the California state fish) to a sea lion, and the idea was to laminate pictures of these creatures and use velcro to attach them to the poster board.

Woman guiding kids through an activity at a science-themed booth.
Kids participating in science activity. | Photo courtesy of author.

It was a simple idea, basic even, but it just might work. We mocked up the design and took it in for a trial run on opening night.

A little nervous, but also excited to talk with these interested youth, we jumped right in and what I learned was that this seemingly simple game was perfect for our audience. Many of these students, although residents of San Diego county, had never been in the ocean. But they were familiar with many of the sea creatures and with a little encouragement they started playing our game.

Questions like: “What is an artificial reef?”; “What is colonization?” and “Why do we find some species near the surface, and others near the seafloor?” all came to the surface. And once we got into the flow, it was clear that this simple game was a success!

Visual: Using games as education tools

I learned three main take-aways from this experience:

  • First, know your audience and don’t be afraid to go back to basics, because you never know what your audience might find to be ‘sticky’.
  • Second, once you know your audience, get creative and think outside of the box, imagine you are sharing the same messaging with your grandmother and your little brother, and ask yourself, would it stick?
  • Third, make it fun! At the end of the day, if the students are having fun and understanding, then with that knowing comes caring and with care there is hope for the future of our oceans! 

As a AAAS IF/THEN ambassador, I feel empowered to seek out opportunities to interact with young individuals, and especially young women, to inspire and arm them with the knowledge needed to protect our oceans and inspire them to pursue careers in marine science. I believe, IF we can show girls examples of women who are leaders and innovators in ocean-related STEM fields, THEN she can activate a powerful voice for ocean conservation and help save our oceans!

About Amber

Smiling woman standing in front of trees.

Amber Sparks is an oceanographer, environmental scientist and entrepreneur. She has a B.A. in Marine Science from UC Berkeley and a M.A.S in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In 2018, Amber was recognized on Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the energy sector for her work with Blue Latitudes to develop sustainable, creative, and cost-effective solutions for the environmental issues that surround the offshore energy industry. Want to learn more about Blue Latitudes and/or engaging with high school students? Send her an email at!