Talk Story: Carl M. Stepath

After Carl M. Stepath, Ph.D, spent years working on his doctoral thesis on the relationship between environment and learning, he never thought he’d want anything to do with writing again.

The environment he studied was the Great Barrier Reef at James Cook University in Australia, and the learning had to do with teenagers to whom he taught the ecosystem. For some of the lucky students, the lessons included snorkeling and swimming.

Still, it was six years of work, and that took a mental toll after he wrapped it up in 2006.

“I never wanted to write again,” Stepath said. “Or read for that matter.”

But years later, a German company, Lambert Academic Publishing, came calling.

Could Stepath, a Kauai resident since 1977 who raised a family on the Eastside, turn his research into a book?

“I think it’s really the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Stepath said about turning his data into a narrative, reader friendly form some 230 pages long. “They had an editor they attached to me.”

Stepath’s research was four-fold. He took more than 500 Australian students and divided them into four study groups. To the first group, the former oceanography teacher at Kauai Community College didn’t teach anything. The second group, he taught about the reef and marine life in the classroom setting only. The third group, he taught by just taking them out to the reef. And the fourth group, he took to the reef and also taught them inside the classroom.

Monitoring their retention and engagement, the fourth group topped the list.

“Far and away the best,” he said.

And the rest of the results were just as predictable.

The third group did second best, the second group third best and, naturally, the fist group finished last.

It’s a seemingly simple concept. Become more engaged, and you’ll care more. Stepath detailed that synopsis in more detail in his book “Coral reefs — Australian sites for learning environmental education” available on Amazon.com

The marine science education research specialist and author sat down with The Garden Island to talk about reefs, research and writing.

TGI: What was the research?

CS: It was my Ph.D. thesis. So many years of research. And it’s about learning. I was working with high school students and I took them to the reef and I measured their learning to marine science compared to students who didn’t go to the reef. I was more interested in activism because I’m an environmentalist and I wanted to see if people would get interested in things. What turned out is when people went to the reef — these young people went to the reef — they did get very interested in it. Actually, they got more interested in school. It actually helped in a lot of different levels. I actually took some aboriginal students who were really unhappy in school and they just loved it.”

TGI: What led you to Australia?

CS: I did some work here with Kula School (which is no longer running).

I worked with them and took some kids. That’s what I did my master’s on. I did my master’s on Kauai.

A lot of people got very interested in it and that’s how I got invited to go to Australia and do a Ph.D. and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, a chance to go to Australia and dive at the Great Barrier and do my research and go to a university there, what a great opportunity.’ And ever since then I’ve been traveling a lot.

TGI: What was it about visiting the reef that engaged them?

CS: There are a number of things that are associated with it and one of them is you’re weightless when you’re snorkeling, and you’re in a liquid environment, and then you see all these amazing things swimming around that you’ve never seen before. It’s amazing how many people who were born and raised here, these kids have never been to the reef before. That has a lot to do with it. This ‘ah ha’ thing that happens.

TGI: What else?

CS: Then there becomes a connection with it. People get a feeling of knowing about something because they were actually there and physically saw it rather than read about it in a book or saw a picture of it. … Just like scuba divers are one of the most environmentally sensitive groups, who actually care about it because they actually go to the reefs, and that to me, because I’ve been diving in Hawaii since the 70s, I’ve seen things my kids will never see. Gone, they’re just gone. They’re wastelands now.

TGI: Is that why you got involved in the first place?

CS: That’s when I got involved in environmental work in the ’90s. I just felt like I have to do something, because I’d just seen so much of it gone. And if you talk to local fishermen they’d tell you the same thing.

We’re very fortunate on Kauai because we have coral reefs. We basically live in a wasteland. Our ocean is so blue and beautiful because there’s really no nutrients in it. So without the coral reefs we really wouldn’t have the fish that we have. The big fish come in to eat the smaller fish that come in and eat the fish that dig off the reef. There’s a whole ecosystem of things that are created by a coral reef. It’s very unique in the world.

TGI: How good of condition are Kauai’s coral reefs?

CS: Well, they’re not doing so well. But it’s actually a global thing. I think the people of Kauai are as aware or more aware as anywhere I’ve ever lived. But we have so many things that affect the reefs, such as global warming and pollution.

TGI: Why is the coral important?

CS: It’s where we get a lot of our food and our oxygen. Most of the oxygen on the planet is produced by the ocean, not by trees. I mean, trees, forests are very important, but more comes from the ocean than comes from the trees. And if that whole system gets lost? Everyone always asks me, ‘Well, who cares about coral reefs?’ Well, if they die and then these oxygen-producing organisms die, then we won’t have oxygen, so we’ll be extinct, too.

TGI: Does your book focus solely on the students getting engaged?

CS: Yeah.

TGI: Was it hard getting it from thesis to book format?

CS: Oh yeah, killer of a time.

TGI: Why? Did you have to make it more of a narrative?

CS: I think it’s really the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve sailed across the ocean, dove, done all kinds of things that are amazing and some might consider difficult, but that particular thing that you just said, taking all this research and putting it into book form — well, a thesis first — then into a book later, it was very difficult because you really have to narrow it down.

TGI: How different is the book than the research?

CS: There’s not a lot difference. I just edited it, it’s shorter. I tried to get most of the really hardcore research out of it.

TGI: What’s the research say?

CS: There’s no question that it’s significantly higher learning if the students are going out into the field and actually seeing and touching and being around the entity that they study.

TGI: And it’s important to get them involved early so they’ll be more likely to want to protect it?

CS: Right. And they learn more. They become more educated so they can make more educated decisions later on as adults. It’s one of the problems we have in our schools today. Kids are disengaged because they’re sitting around in a class all day, bored. I know I was (laughing).

TGI: Is the next generation aware there’s a problem with coral disease?

CS: I think there is more global awareness. I taught 19 to 20 year olds. They grew up with the Internet, they grew up with mobile phones, they grew up with all that stuff, they seem to have this more idea of a holistic attitude so if one thing dies, like coral reef, that has a big effect on us. Before, my generation, and other generations, we kind of specialized and didn’t know about other areas.

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