Saltwater Classroom Uses Tech to Teach Ocean Conservation

Founder Alexandra Doudera tells us about becoming an ocean-centric entrepreneur with a focus on outdoor learning.

Doudera in her outdoor classroom at Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth.

The idea for Saltwater Classroom came to its 28-year-old founder and executive director, Alexandra Doudera, in 2016, in a fifth-grade classroom in the coastal city of Viña del Mar, Chile. Nearly seven years later, the Camden native has brought her vision to life, teaching weeklong workshops on marine science and ocean conservation to students in third through sixth grade from Maine to Mexico.

The second phase of Saltwater Classroom is an ocean education app, launching this spring, which Doudera developed with Adapt, a Maine-based digital agency. She refined her ideas at the BlueTech Entrepreneurial Trek, a two-week-long immersion focused on startup methodologies and tools at the Darling Marine Center, hosted by the Roux Institute and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. “Lexi is the only one here who is focused on the kids, and that matters. She’s making an impact,” says Patrick Arnold, cofounder and CEO of the New England Ocean Cluster, which owns and operates the Hús, Portland’s waterfront coworking space, from which Doudera runs Saltwater Classroom.

We recently sat down to talk about the app, why embracing technology is crucial to conservation, and how Maine is on the cutting edge of BlueTech industry.

How does your new app differentiate Saltwater Classroom from other ocean education programs?

What sets Saltwater Classroom apart is a global perspective and the idea of bringing people together through education, and this [app] can make it happen. It creates the opportunity for students to connect, regardless of where they live. I also think it’s interesting for people who aren’t necessarily close to the ocean, to open their eyes to different experiences that can be facilitated through technology. In our curriculum, we have a module that speaks to our inland ocean connection to show that, even if you’re far from the coast, you are connected to the ocean through weather patterns, watersheds, or food systems. There are many ways we are all tied to the ocean, even if you live in the middle of America or central Mexico.

Can you tell us a little bit about the app experience?

The app is a platform for students to keep learning about the ocean after our workshops, by engaging with their ocean environment and connecting with one another. There will be a homepage with daily updates and ocean fun facts, but there will also be different missions and badges that students can earn. For example, they can earn their Intertidal Explorer badge by doing activities in the inter-tidal zone, or the Beach Hero badge by participating in beach cleanups. Kids will have a profile where they can share their favorite ocean species or their favorite ocean activity and connect with one another by sending in-app messages—all things that will encourage and incentivize students to get outside.

“We’re all connected to the ocean and have some unique tie to it that transcends cultural or geographical differences.”

So much of Saltwater Classroom is rooted in being physically immersed in the natural world. How do you see technology as complementary to outdoor-centered learning?

Our approach will always be hands-on by encouraging people to get their hands dirty and immerse themselves in the environment, but I think the opportunity provided by technology is to make our world smaller. We want to grow this web of people who are connected by a passion for learning and a commitment to stewardship. I often say that the oceans are our world’s greatest unifier. Really, we’re all connected by the ocean and have some unique tie to it that transcends cultural or geographical differences. I think this technology allows that to happen. The app will encourage this hands-on connection by incentivizing kids to go outdoors. So, I don’t see it as being contradictory. I see it as the next step. Of course, there are challenges. You don’t want people glued to a screen or only connecting online; it’s really something to be cautious about. But I think the opportunities the app provides students to broaden their horizons and perspective of the ocean is unparalleled.

What is it like as an ocean-centric entrepreneur to be doing this work in Maine?

Maine is becoming more of a nurturing environment for this kind of project. We’ve always had hands-on education and connection to the ocean, but now this new emphasis on entrepreneurship, in the blue economy and BlueTech, is a new area where this idea can grow. There are so many like-minded people. The foundation is here, and it’s very supportive. There’s a lot of resources for people who want to start their own venture or nonprofit. Maine will always be home for me, so it’s nice there are more opportunities to connect with people and businesses that share the same values who are able to help make the idea a reality.

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