Florida beach kids grow up swimming alongside tropical fish and scooping up shells the Atlantic tosses at their feet. Three of the state’s teens and tweens — Marina Barto, Jemma Curry and Emily Briceno — couldn’t help but notice the shifts in the ocean. They watched, dismayed, as the coral lost its color, the health department closed beaches and aquatic life was affected by bacterial contamination.
At their middle school, students like Marina, Jemma and Emily can earn high school credit in a class called Experimental Design, taught by Stephanie Killingsworth. Its goal is to examine current issues and design experiments to help resolve them. As the Experimental Design class brainstormed their next project, marine health soon surfaced as a popular topic of interest.
As the class project came together, Jemma and Emily became its de facto leaders. They named their group Surface 71, a reference to the percentage of the planet covered by water.
The students discovered in their research that marine life is in a losing battle with plastic and trash. Scientists estimate that as much as 12.7 million metric tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans annually, killing a million sea birds and countless whales, dolphins, manatees, seals, sea lions, shellfish and sea turtles that consume or become entangled in it.
One of Surface 71’s first efforts was recruiting students to support beach cleanups. Participants wore gloves and used grabbers to pick up everything from convenience store cups to medical supplies. Surface 71 also helped transform trash into works of art.
To help raise money, the students initially made hand washes and soaps. Then they found out about Philanthropy Tank, a local organization that supports young people in social service, activism and entrepreneurship. They pitched their idea and were awarded a $12,000 grant, which they put toward installing water refill stations at Palm Beach County public schools. Now, seven refill stations provide chilled, filtered water in four buildings.
The ripple effect guides them when the problem feels too big to take on. Like so many in their generation, Marina, Emily and Jemma have focused on that principle to take on a problem that can often feel too big to change.
"I think that a lot of kids are worried about the future of our Earth, but nobody feels like they can do anything about it," Emily says. "They think, Oh it’s just me. I’m only one person. But if 100 people are saying it, that’s 100 people who want change. And If I show that I care, more people will say, 'Hey, it’s not just me out here. I’m able to work on what I think is important as well.'"