Kierstyn Kirkland asks questions about coral during orientation Monday, June 10 at the Georgia Aquarium. She and nine other students will be traveling to Belize later this month on a study trip to learn about conserving marine species. ARLINDA SMITH BROADY/AJC

Dream trip to Belize combines education, conservation for local students

In researching possible careers, Kierstyn Kirkland, a Snellville Middle School student, stumbled across marine biology.

Students in the Gwinnett County Public School system are encouraged to explore career choices that align with their interests and abilities. As a rising 8th grader, she will begin taking classes that will put her on that path.

“I’m concerned about how pollution, over-fishing, invasive species and a lot of other things are having a negative effect on our planet,” she said.

But before she steps into class this fall, she’ll get an opportunity to see what that career is like first-hand.

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Kierstyn is among 10 metro Atlanta students who will spend a week this month in Belize with the Frank Ski Kids Foundation. Earlier this year, she entered the Planet Green: Ocean Rescue contest, an effort of the radio personality and philanthropist to develop caring, informed and engaged leaders. This is the foundation’s 12th trip with students.

“This isn’t a one-and-done type of thing,” said Ski. “I want to see these students run for class president and be active in politics and world events.”

The first trip was to the Galapagos Islands 10 years ago.

“The kids learned about climate change and how it relates to what’s happening with the planet and how it affects their lives and their futures,” he said. “As adults we become complacent with what’s going on in the world and don’t believe that we can make a difference. We don’t recycle, we’re not aware of our carbon footprint. If we change the minds of the youngest people to start thinking about those things we’ll have future heads of industry and policy makers who will be environmentally conservative.”

This go-round, the kids will be traveling with Georgia Aquarium staff, a partner organization. As a non-profit, the organization has a mission of educating people about marine life through preservation, animal care and research across the globe.

“We don’t want the students to think of this trip in a narrow fashion,” said Brian Davis, executive vice president of the aquarium. “We don’t want them to think that just putting coral back in the water is enough without looking for ways to fix the problem that led to their demise.”

The students will study the effects of global warming and climate change on the marine environment in the Belize Barrier Reef. Contestants were asked to write a 500-word essay answering the questions: “What are the effects that Global Warming has on our Marine Eco Systems around the world? How can those effects be cured through effective Sustainability Practices?”

The ten winners demonstrated advance knowledge of the tour subject and a desire to learn how to make a difference. During the trip, the kids will become scuba-certified and afterward they’ll be encouraged to become active at the aquarium and other environmental endeavors.

At orientation Monday night, Georgia Aquarium team member Steve Hartter gave a crash course about coral.

Hartter has been part of conservation efforts in Florida for coral spawning. At the briefing he explained how coral live and what is causing its numbers to dwindle. The students took notes and asked questions in preparation for the trip.

“I’m nervous and excited and a lot of things at once,” said Kierstyn.

Her mother nodded in agreement.

“This could very well help shape the rest of her life,” said Richelle Kirkland.

Other contestant winners include:

Caitlin Noble, St. Pius High School

Jordan Adeyemi, Ron Clark Academy

Kayleigh Stargell, The Lovett School

Myla Somersall, Atlanta International School

Nyla Campbell, Strong Rock Christian School

Karee Thompson, Arabia Mountain High School

Cameron Penn, Miller Grove High School

Madison Clark, Kennesaw Mountain High

Ayinde Diop, Maynard Jackson High School

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