Growing up, marine scientist and marine biology teacher at Santa Monica High School and Santa Monica College Benjamin Kay says his mom inspired him to appreciate the environment through recycling, being green, and living sustainably.
Now as a 32-year-old, Kay has been instilling the same message to his students through his innovative classes and projects during and after school at SaMoHi and SMC.
It is this passion for teaching his students that earned him the 2011 Green California Schools Teacher Leadership Award on Monday.
“For my sixth grade science project, my mom and I did a water conservation project together,” Kay said. “She instilled in me a sense of the conservation ethic. That was a seed that later came to germinate when I got very passionate about recycling and reusing things, but not making major sacrifices to my standard of living.
“There’s a big misconception that you have to take away from your standard of living to live a greener lifestyle; it’s all about small changes to daily habits.”
Monday’s awards ceremony, held in Pasadena, recognized the outstanding accomplishments in sustainability by teachers across California colleges and school districts.
Kay won the Teacher Award for educating his students about aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and the human impacts that threaten their fragile existence.
His courses integrate inquiry-based methods, hands-on labs, field trips, and expert guest speakers, and frequent civic engagement opportunities.
“I integrate a service learning component in my classes, whereby students fulfill 20 percent of their grade by taking part in community-sponsored activities focused on science, research, sustainability, and the environment,” he said. “We attend beach clean-ups, restore coastal wetlands, recycle to buy water-purifying LifeStraws for other countries, monitor local ocean water quality, attend movie premieres, convert gas-guzzling cars to electric vehicles, and participate in cool events like the National Plug In Day Electric Car Parade this past Sunday.
“Engaging students in hands-on experiential learning has been one of the biggest and most successful parts of my career because it bolsters understanding and critical thinking about pressing environmental issues and needed solutions.”
He also takes on the mentor role for SaMoHi’s Team Marine after-school program, which is an eco-action group made up of students passionate about the environment.
“They were the ones who helped get single-use plastic bags banned in Santa Monica, advocate for marine protected areas to reduce the impacts of over-fishing, and promote solutions to climate change,” he said. “They’ve staged marches, done grand scale artwork using plastic bags and bottle caps, and encouraged sustainable changes at the district level.”
Kay teaches full-time at SaMoHi. Last spring he completed his first adjunct professorship at SMC where he taught marine science during the evening. He will return to teaching biology at SMC this spring.
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