Mauritian programme brings the sea to the classroom to conserve coral reefs

This year's United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP24, taking place in Katowice, Poland is again calling for urgent action following a year of devastating climate disasters around the world. It will devote one day, 13 December 2018, to the pivotal role played by education. The island of Mauritius is a real-life example of how people are transforming themselves and their ways of life through education to mitigate the worst of climate change.

When Reef Conservation began its work in 2004 to promote the sustainable use of coastal and marine ecosystems and biodiversity in Mauritius, there was one large obstacle - most local people did not know how to swim nor had first-hand knowledge of life under the water.

Managing Director Kathy Young said: 'Although we are a Small Island Developing State surrounded by water with a lot of artisanal fishing, not many people know how to swim. Therefore, they don't know very much about what is under the water or about marine eco-systems and you can't protect what you don't understand.'

So, with a little lateral thinking, Reef Conservation (one of the nominations for the UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development in 2018) decided that they would bring the sea and its biodiversity to the people. That saw the birth of Bis Lamer (or the Sea Bus as it roughly translates) in 2014, a mobile education unit bringing interactive learning to people of all ages and communities throughout the island.

The NGO uses a partnership approach and employs professional qualified biologists and trained personnel to implement projects in four programme areas: training; education and sensitization; research and monitoring, and community and conservation.

'Along with a fear of the water among Mauritians there are very few sea-related programmes and little in textbooks in schools and institutions,' said Education and Training Coordinator Sameer Kaudeer.

Hands-on teaching and learning

This is changing, and Reef Conservation is promoting and adding to this change with hands-on teaching and learning about coastal and marine themes and topics including the food chain and the growth of coral all with a view to showing how climate change can affect an island like Mauritius.

'For a typical session we might start with a microscope and examine plankton or use interactive touch screens to navigate inside the coral reef and see baby coral at the first stage of development,' said Sameer.

'We have fishing games where students learn about the minimum size different fish should be caught and a game where a turtle has to avoid the plastic to feed on jellyfish. We then discuss how plastic affects the eco-system and specific species. Learning about how the plastic we throw can find its way back into our plates as well as the existence of microbeads in most cosmetics products always seems to have a huge impact on people in the audience.'

Tapping into natural resources sustainably

The programme also works with coastal communities explaining to fishermen about the life cycle of marine species and how to exploit their natural resources more sustainably.

The island, which developed very quickly due to its sugar industry, is now facing new development challenges from tourism which places increasing pressure on its natural resources.

'We have developed two training courses with qualifications approved by the Mauritian Qualification Authority aimed at tourism operators, hotels, tour boat operators and anyone else within the tourism sector,' said Kathy.

'There is more and more interest from the tourism industry wanting to know about eco systems and what they should be telling their clients. We work with hotel groups providing learning tools and educational materials for kids' clubs and beach signage which outlines good and bad practices,' she said.

Since its launch Bis Lamer has reached 32,021 people, 23,236 of whom were students and 8785 adults.

But for the future they would like to set a second bus in motion to expand and deepen their approach.

'We still have a lot of people to reach and we want to continue to work with kids as they move from class to class,' said Kathy. 'And we would like to grow the team to be able to cover more topics and offer a more holistic approach as all our ecosystems are linked. Although at the moment we specialise in coastal and marine ecosystems, we are also starting to look at fresh water resources which are linked to the ocean.'

More focus will be placed on working towards integrating the Bis Lamer programme into Teacher Training programmes delivered by the Mauritius Institute of Education and on strengthening the monitoring and evaluation of the programme.

'We can see that the programme is working because when we hold open days the children are able to answer confidently when we ask them questions about the coral reef. We can see the information has been absorbed but we need to be able to prove that systematically. We definitely need a mechanism to measure the effect of the programme through behaviour change.' said Kathy.

In addition, Bis Lamer gets many requests from schools and institutions to keep coming back year after year for sensitisation sessions.

And the learning stays with participants throughout life having secured a pool of committed volunteers who are always willing to turn out and help the Bis Lamer team to promote conservation and sustainable actions. 

Education is the most powerful element in preparing societies for the global challenges that climate change brings. It equips individuals, communities and the wider world with the understanding, skills and attitudes to engage in shaping green, low emission and climate-resilient societies. UNESCO promotes Climate Change Education as part of its Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programme. At COP24 Education Day on 13 December 2018, UNESCO and partners will organize a series of events to promote education and in particular ESD as an integral part of any strategy to combat the effects of climate change, put into practice a global agreement and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.