Teens make waves at Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers Youth Summit

On August 6-8, 2021, 60 high school students associated with 12 different aquariums convened online for the Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers (CELC) network Virtual Youth Summit. The event, planned by teen leaders, gave a group of passionate young aquarium volunteers from around the country a voice in addressing environmental issues impacting their local communities.

Screenshot of teens and NOAA staff in a video meeting holding up pieces of paper with words written on them. Words include energized, hopeful, empowering, enlightened, grateful, inspired, inspirational, and awesome.

Teen participants in the Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers (CELC) Youth Summit pose with a word describing how they feel after the summit. (Image credit: NOAA)

The event featured 21 speakers from non-profit organizations, academia, and NOAA who brought diverse perspectives on a variety of topics, such as marine debris, environmental justice, and community resilience. 

“The summit was a huge eye-opener for me. Very inspiring, powerful, and impactful. It taught me that as a teen I can still do so much to get my voice heard and help my community…,” said one teen participant. 

Through inspirational keynotes and virtual interactive workshops, each speaker shared career opportunities and how summit participants can make a difference for the ocean through art, social media, writing, advocacy, and more. Each interactive workshop led an activity with the teens, like writing a blog offsite link about saving sea otters for the Wild Conservation Society in New York or coming up with a plan to communicate with their representatives on environmental policies. The summit also featured a young changemakers panel that brought outstanding young leaders to share on their impactful work. 

“The summit has opened up the careers and spectrum of opportunities in ocean conservation. It has also encouraged me even more to take action and speak my voice because I am a part of the future,” said another teen.

From the very beginning, youth were instrumental in coming up with the idea for the event. When the CELC network wanted to figure out how to best support teen aquarium volunteers, they decided to ask the teens themselves. In 2018, dozens of teen volunteers came together virtually to discuss how they wanted the network to help them spark meaningful environmental change in each of their local communities. Through this conversation, the idea for the first ever teen-led CELC youth summit was born. 

Behind the summit was the Youth Planning Team, a group of eight incredibly dedicated teens from participating aquariums. These teens brought their perspectives to each element of the summit. “It was important to incorporate youth voices into the planning to make sure they were getting what they wanted out of the summit. We wanted this to be their event, a summit by teens and for teens, not just another event that adults were putting together for them based on what we think they should learn,” said NOAA Office of Education youth engagement lead Lauren Gibson. The Youth Planning team researched, proposed, and voted on all the speakers that they, along with their peers, wanted to hear from at the summit. At the summit itself, the teens moderated the young changemakers panel, led icebreakers throughout the event, and introduced speakers.

Centering the whole effort on youth voices had an enormous impact, both on the success of the summit and on the Youth Planning Team participants themselves. One Youth Planning Team member said, “I’ve learned so much from being a part of this team, and it’s amazing to have such an inclusive and safe space where we can share our ideas and visions for this summit.”

In the months following the event, all of the summit participants have been hard at work solidifying and implementing the projects they began envisioning during the summit. To help make these projects a reality, each aquarium team will receive up to $1,000 of funding through the eeBLUE partnership offsite link during the 2021-2022 school year. “We have been so inspired by the passion teens are bringing to their projects and can’t wait to see the impact they will have,” said NOAA Office of Education youth engagement lead, Lisa Kim.  

The teens shared this excitement for the future. One summit participant said, “Words can’t describe how amazing my experience was, and I know this is just the beginning, which makes me infinitely more excited!”