School of Sharks

A team of shark experts brings firsthand experience to the classroom.

Derek Burkholder, Ph.D., Jillian Morris and Jeffrey Carrier, Ph.D., expose a group of students to shark tagging on a Sharks4Kids and Seacamp shark trip.

The first time Jillian Morris encountered a shark underwater, something bothered her. She was 8 years old and snorkeling near Crystal River, Fla. It wasn't that she was afraid — floating there observing, she found the little nurse shark endlessly fascinating. The problem was that it didn't match a single one of the stereotypes she'd been led to believe about sharks.

"In my experience, sharks haven't been anything like what people say about them — ‘they're bad, they're scary, they're monsters,'" Morris said.

Since that first encounter she has spent thousands of hours exploring and documenting the world of sharks as a student, researcher, scuba instructor and videographer. And over time her childhood hunch about sharks being unfairly maligned developed into an ironclad conviction — and a drive to set the record straight.
Defying Expectations
Nowhere is that drive more evident than in Sharks4Kids, the nonprofit organization Morris founded in 2013 to educate young people around the world about her favorite fish. The idea came to her in 2008 after she noticed a recurring theme when she shared photos and videos of her underwater adventures, explaining, "You get reactions like, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought you couldn't be in the water with sharks.'"

And yet there she was, on screen, surrounded by the silently gliding predators — sometimes 10 or more at a time — completely at ease. Audiences were captivated. When she took her presentation into classrooms, the students bombarded her with questions.

"I realized, ‘OK, there's something to this,'" Morris said. She set out to create lessons aimed at dispelling shark myths, using her personal experiences, underwater footage and accurate scientific information about sharks. Her husband, filmmaker Duncan Brake, and their close friend, shark scientist Derek Burkholder, Ph.D., signed on for the challenge, and Sharks4Kids was born.

"It was the three of us saying, ‘Right, we really love sharks. We love the ocean. And we want to make sure that we're going to continue to be able to see sharks,'" Morris said. Teaching kids to value and appreciate sharks and the ocean seemed like the best way to help ensure a future for the misunderstood and overexploited creatures.
Somewhere Across the Sea
As the team moved forward with developing K-6 lesson plans for the Sharks4Kids website, a dilemma arose: How would they get Morris, who lives on the remote island of Bimini in the Bahamas ("a sharky place," as she called it), in front of classrooms around the world?

Technology presented an answer. Skype, the popular messaging application, began soliciting participants for its "Skype in the Classroom" series, offering an ideal virtual venue for Sharks4Kids' unique style of high-energy, lecture-meets-show-and-tell presentation. It didn't hurt that the Sharks4Kids team was already familiar with the app: "I live on a tiny island," Morris said, "so Skype is how I talk to everyone."

They did not anticipate how popular the Skype lectures would be. Morris said it wasn't long until she was dialing in to 25-30 classes per week. Her cofounders, Brake and Burkholder, also host their share of Skype calls.

In addition to promoting marine stewardship, Sharks4Kids seeks to empower students to think critically about their place in the world.

Two of those calls went to Kyle Snoddon's sixth-grade class at Bright's Grove Public School in Bright's Grove, Ontario. Snoddon said he found Sharks4Kids on the Skype in the Classroom website and chose it for the subject matter. He said many of his students were afraid of sharks before the talk, but afterward they "came away with a desire to spread the word about how sharks are actually lovely, necessary, misunderstood animals." "They've really taken it on as a quest," he said.

The students' eagerness is due in part to the information Morris shares in her talks — such as the statistic that 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year. But it's also due to her attitude. "Jillian is very enthusiastic and warm, and she backs it up with all kinds of expertise," Snoddon said. "The kids are really drawn to that." So drawn to it, in fact, that his class helped organize a second Skype session for several grades in the school gym. That session drew nearly 200 students and teachers.

"Whenever Jillian is talking, it really comes through that she's talking to you individually," said sixth-grader Kennedy Lucas, 11. "She makes you feel that you have potential — that you're able to do anything you want."
Lots of Growing
How quickly Sharks4Kids has grown really hit home when the trio began tallying their numbers at the end of 2015. "It snuck up on us," Burkholder said. "We knew we had done a fair bit, but only when we sat down and counted everything up did we realize we'd done more than we could have expected. And it's just continued to grow from there."

Since 2014, Sharks4Kids has hosted more than 700 Skype calls, connecting with 30,000 students in 47 U.S. states and 38 countries, including Kenya, Malaysia, China, South Korea and South Africa. Around two dozen Google Hangouts reached another 4,700 kids. Their in-person classroom visits have reached 16,300 kids in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and the Caribbean, and the organization has taken more than 300 students snorkeling with sharks or on shark-tagging trips.

Burkholder said the next steps for the all-volunteer nonprofit group include securing more funding and adding more full-time staff — basically, treating Sharks4Kids more like a business than the "passion project" it began as several years ago.

Sharks4Kids has reached 16,300 kids through classroom visits in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Caribbean and tens of thousands remotely.

A Deeper Understanding
On the surface, Sharks4Kids is all about sharks. But there's an undercurrent of empowerment running through the organization's approach — certainly empowerment of students to become stewards of the ocean, but also to challenge stereotypes (such as the man-eating shark) and think critically about their place in the world. "At the heart of it is getting kids to understand that even if they never see the ocean, they are connected to it," Morris said.

And when that connection happens, even if it's just one student out of a hundred, she said it makes all the hard work and frustration of fighting for shark conservation worth it: "There's still so much fear of sharks, but when you connect with these kids it's like, ‘All right, we might just do this.' That gives us the hope to keep going."

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2017