Research Summary

Students’ perceptions of a marine education program at a junior high school in Japan with a specific focus on Satoumi

Differing perceptions of the sea among junior high students enrolled in a marine education program in Japan

Environmental Education Research

Marine conservation efforts are needed as human actions degrade coastal habitats and threaten marine biodiversity. Marine education aims to expand knowledge and awareness of marine issues and, in doing so, encourage ocean-friendly attitudes and inspire conservation actions. Internationally, schools and environmental education facilities have implemented marine education programs, but the success of these programs has not been well studied. The purpose of this study was to explore the impacts of a marine education program (MEP) on Japanese junior high school students’ perceptions of the sea.

Historically, Japan has relied on the ocean to provide natural resources for both economic and cultural purposes. Because of this, Japan’s coastal communities have long understood the importance of creating and maintaining a healthy marine environment. Many small fishing towns, called Satoumi, have worked hard to maintain their ways of life by using sustainable practices that protect marine habitats and biodiversity. For example, local fishermen in a Satoumi in Bizen City, Japan, have a long history of combatting marine pollution. In the 1950s, increased wastewater from industrial sources caused high death rates in local fish populations, which threatened the community’s way of life. To combat the issue, the local fisherman planted eelgrass to provide nursery habitat for fish whose populations had declined. The unique history of this Satoumi was the basis of the MEP curriculum that was investigated in this study. Experiential MEPs provide students opportunities to get hands-on experience with coastal restoration and community engagement. For example, the MEP in this study offered students opportunities to interview local fishermen and scientists, conduct restoration projects with eelgrass, as well as analyze the local fishing industry and present findings to classmates and teachers.

This study took place at Hinase Junior High School. The researchers selected this location because of the town’s maritime history and that it had an experiential MEP for all grade levels (seventh, eighth, and ninth). The Hinase MEP used a scaffolded approach, meaning that each year built upon the previous, and students progressively moved toward a deeper understanding of local marine issues. The researchers conducted group interviews with a total of 108 students (36 students from each grade), all of whom were chosen because they were able to stay after school to participate in the study. For each grade level, the researchers divided students into groups of three and conducted 20-minute interviews with each of the groups. During each interview, the researchers asked students the same six questions about their perceptions of and relationships with the sea. They asked eighth and ninth graders two additional questions that focused on their perceptions of the MEP (the researchers reasoned that seventh graders were too new to the program to answer these questions). The researchers analyzed the interviews using a combination of approaches to identify themes.

Overall, the results indicated that the MEP was effective in positively impacting students’ perceptions and knowledge of the sea. Results showed that students in eighth and ninth grades typically had more knowledge about marine biodiversity and ecosystems than seventh graders, which was expected given their longer enrollment in the MEP. Additionally, students in those higher grade levels were better able to relate the sea to their own experiences. For example, many older students spoke about having a positive relationship with the sea, which they had cultivated through maritime experiences such as eating oysters, participating in restoration events, and communicating with local fishermen.

Additionally, most ninth grade students and some eighth grade students demonstrated a greater understanding of the relationship between humans and the sea. For example, both eighth and ninth grade students had a greater understanding of the importance of keeping the sea clean and implementing restoration events. Further, results indicated that eighth and ninth grade students had a greater awareness of the importance of the sea and eelgrass. Overall, seventh graders demonstrated a general understanding of the sea, but their responses were vague and more disconnected than those of the eighth and ninth graders. This likely was due to their recent enrollment in the MEP.

This study had limitations. The researchers used a cross-grade design, which allowed them to compare perceptions and knowledge among students in different grades. However, differences among grades do not necessarily indicate changes over time. Only a 3-year study following the same group of students could truly measure the MEP’s impacts over time. Additionally, conducting the interviews at the beginning of the school year may have skewed the results of the study because seventh grade students had yet to learn anything from the MEP. Thus, their responses were not necessarily indicative of any programmatic impacts.

The researchers recommend implementing MEPs in other coastal towns where community members coexist with nature and support sustainable management of marine resources. Additionally, the researchers emphasize the importance of tailoring MEPs to their local contexts and giving community members and students opportunities to collaborate.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of this study was to understand how a Japanese marine education program (MEP) could change students’ perceptions of and knowledge about the sea. This study took place at a junior high school in a small fishing town where an experiential MEP had been implemented in grades 7-9. Study results indicated that the MEPs positively impacted both knowledge and perceptions of the sea. The researchers recommend tailoring MEPs to their local contexts and implementing these programs in coastal towns to promote sustainable resource management.