When most of us think of San Diego, we envision its vast beaches, lush parks and near-perfect weather.
But for thousands of school-age children here, life is not paradise. Nearly one in five children in San Diego County lives in poverty.
One of its poorest communities, City Heights, sits just 7 miles inland, yet many residents have never seen the ocean.
“Kids in City Heights are often exposed only to … a 10-block radius. So their world can be very small,” said Shara Fisler, founder of the Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego.
For 17 years, Fisler’s focus has been on education by introducing children to the living science lab in their backyard. Through free, hands-on programs, her nonprofit empowers young people in City Heights to become science and conservation leaders.
“We have a huge untapped talent pool in these urban, underserved communities,” said Fisler, whose group serves about 6,000 students a year.
The organization offers classroom activities, field experiences and community projects. The result: Young people fall in love with science.
“You see these students who are now graduating and getting into Ph.D. programs (and) becoming scientists, engineers, ecologists,” Fisler said. “This is a career field that students from very diverse communities don’t pursue. And our students are pursuing them at unprecedented rates.”
More than 80% of her participants in grades 6-12 go on to earn a college degree, more than half in science and conservation fields.
CNN spoke with Fisler about her work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
CNN: What are some of the limitations for kids living in City Heights?
Shara Fisler: It is a highly urbanized, densely populated community, (with) few safe natural areas to discover. Families in the area often don’t have access to cars or effective public transportation and can’t reach many of the natural areas so prevalent along our coast and in San Diego County.
City Heights, like other high-poverty communities, has limited resources in school and out of school for additional science programs. Young people in City Heights aren’t provided the opportunities to understand nature and the natural world and how they can make a difference in it.
CNN: What are some of the things your students get to do?
Fisler: We bring organisms and experiments into the classroom. We bring students out where they can explore wetlands and tide pools. Students learn to swim and snorkel. We even bring students down to Baja California, Mexico, where they’re able to spend an entire summer sleeping outdoors and experiencing what it’s like to be a field biologist.
In their community, students do hands-on restoration projects that help the ecosystem. In their research, they’re working alongside scientists. The cool thing about young people is that they’re going to be equally as excited about plankton, which can be microscopic, as they are a whale shark, which is the largest shark on the planet.
They are able to explore all of that, really, within a 500-mile zone here in Southern California. It provides a great platform for them to feel like discoverers and to really learn all the principles of science. You can study technology, engineering, mathematics, biochemistry, physics — all through studying the ocean.
CNN: How did you start the program?
Fisler: As a summer camp. We literally took over a kayak storage closet and made it into a small laboratory where kids came and they could discover science. It was a place with little microscopes. And we would go out; it was right on the bay. And we were able to actually explore the environment and start to get excited about science. We served about 30 kids the first summer.
CNN: You were so inspired by these kids, you changed your career path.
Fisler: I thought I would go off and work in developing countries to help people protect their environments. And then I realized all of the potential those young people had.
City Heights is one of the most diverse communities across the nation, with over 30 languages spoken. The families who live there really want to see a better opportunity for their kids. And there’s a real sense of optimism about what’s possible for the future.
I really believe the magic is that we as a community believe in our students. And because of that, our students believe in themselves. And they go off, and they achieve.
CNN: Your group is expanding to reach all 20,000 children in the community. What are your plans?
Fisler: We’re building a Living Lab. It will be a state-of-the-art science and environmental facility, a place where families can come and really see science and conservation as relevant to their lives. Where kids can participate in real, authentic research, working with scientists. And I think, most importantly, it’s a place that will set the expectations that our kids have proved they deserve.
Want to get involved? Check out the Ocean Discovery Institute website and see how to help.