FETC Keynote: Educators in Critical Role To Inspire Environmental Action

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In his opening keynote address at the FETC 2009 conference in Orlando, FL, Animal Planet chief ocean correspondent Philippe Cousteau proclaimed: "I have come to realize that, above all, I am a product of good teaching." And good teaching, he continued, has the power to transform the future.

Cousteau, the grandson of legendary filmmaker and ocean conservationist Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and son of the late marine biologist Philippe Cousteau Sr., spoke of the educator's challenge--and critical need--to inspire the new generation to "take action for a better future."

He said, "Make no mistake: The oceans are critical to all life on this planet, and they are in peril." He cited a range of human causes, from climate change to pollution and ocean acidification to massive population growth, as the greatest threats to the planet's oceans.

"In the relatively few short years that we have been exploring the oceans," he said, "much has changed." Speaking of the vast reefs off the coast of France he frequented as a child, Cousteau confessed, "Indeed, it can break your heart when you see that the beauty that was once there ... is all gone."

Still, according to Cousteau, all is not lost. Though we live in a time of crisis, we have the power to build a sustainable future together. And the solutions to even our most daunting challenges, he anticipates, will be championed by the next generation, by children "empowered and activated by their teachers."

During his talk, Cousteau shared a clip from The Nile, the last film to be produced and directed by his father. The footage showed Philippe Cousteau Sr. and his team teaching the Dinka tribe of the upper Nile to snorkel, giving them the opportunity to experience first hand local marine life in its natural habitat. For Cousteau, the most inspirational part of the film was when the narrator explained that the people were "exploring a world which has been beside them all their lives, and which they had never seen." That, he said, sums up our role as teachers: to shed light on the reality of our surroundings so that we might better understand where we've been, and where we are going.

Remembering his own experiences as a student, Cousteau shared the story of the middle school teacher who challenged and inspired him to embrace his natural talents and engage in activities that brought him both satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. According to Cousteau, that teacher's influence helped prepare him for his role as explorer, communicator, and storyteller.

As president of the non-profit environmental education and conservation organization EarthEcho--founded by Philippe and his sister, Alexandra, in memory of their father--Cousteau spoke at length about the multitude of ways technology can be used to integrate information and education. While filming the new Discovery HD/BBC co-production, Oceans, for example, he was able to chat via the Internet with school children while on location half way around the world. Cousteau also spoke of his use of cell phone technology to upload videos to a blog while on expedition in Svalbard, Norway, sharing his experiences with disparate audiences almost instantly. "Technology," he said, "will play an ever-increasing role in educators' ability to transform and motivate students."

Cousteau concluded his talk by reading a letter from his grandfather, titled "Pursuing Rainbows," written to eulogize Philippe's father shortly after his death. In the letter the elder Cousteau remembered his son as a man who shared intimately his dreams of a better tomorrow; a man who spent his life "seeking after the vanishing shapes of a better world."

After a brief pause, Cousteau looked out at the audience and reminded them, in no uncertain terms, that the time for action is now. "True change," he said, "will require taking a bold and courageous step, a break from the past." It will require resources, and new technologies, and a different way of thinking. "You are the heroes of today," he said. "And through your work as teachers, you are building the hope for tomorrow."

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.

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