Speaking to… Sarah Weldon

It’s quite ironic, that technology and things like the World Wide Web mean that we have more access than ever to the world, yet we have also become disconnected to the planet. We take it for granted.

Image courtesy Sarah Weldon

Name: Sarah Weldon, CEO of UK Charity Oceans Project

Based: live in the Lake District, from Henley-On-Thames, and doing a PhD part time at Roehampton University, so I’m pretty much all over the UK, especially as I run talks for schools through School Speakers. 

What is your background? I originally trained as a neuropsychologist, so I’m excited about the biology of the brain affects our behaviour. This led to a 17-year career in the NHS and social services, as well as abroad, mainly working with young people.

As a keen scuba diver, I also trained as an IMCA Diver Medic Technician at the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth. I was terrible at physics and chemistry at school, but loved human biology, its only now as an adult, learning about the electrics on my boat, and things like navigation and tides, that I’m really enjoying STEM subjects, in a real life context.

Why are you interested in science communication?

Probably because I just didn’t get it at school. I was in a mixed ability class, with lots of naughty boys and mainly supply teachers, so we were just given a heavy book to carry to lessons. It was only in later life that I really discovered science and all the different careers, so I wasted a lot of time. If we had been exposed to science communicators and STEM Ambassadors from the world outside of school, I think we would have been more excited and exposed to the opportunities available to us.

I love those moments when I meet young people, talk to them and just know that something has clicked, and their face has a complete look of excitement. That’s how learning should be, it’s about exploration of the world around us and being allowed to ask questions. As we get older, we often stop asking the question ‘why’. The world is changing so fast around us, that we need scientists to continue making progress. In my own lifetime, the World Wide Web was invented and that in itself has revolutionised the way we live our lives. Education really has to keep learning fresh and new. 

Why did you move to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia?

After the 2008 war between Georgia, Abkhazia, and Ossetia, Georgia faced a lot of challenges, particularly with corruption, knife crime in schools and a drastic change from a Soviet system to having to create everything from scratch. I was invited by former President Misha Saakishvili to work on his project to help bring about educational reform and prepare Georgians for new relations with the outside world, in particular Europe and the USA. Particularly for things like business, commerce, and tourism.

It took me a long time to decide whether to go, but once I was there I absolutely loved it. I still get very home sick for Georgia, which was a strange and new experience having lived abroad on and off for much of my adult life. It was an incredible time to be there, right at the cusp of change, with lots of energy and opportunity for being creative and trying new things.

What did you do in Georgia?

Much of my job was teaching English as a foreign language to government ministers, Georgian Navy, the new police recruits (the entire police force was sacked and replaced with new recruits to lessen corruption and new glass police stations were built to make things more transparent), students and teachers in schools in different regions of Georgia, and working with the ‘mandatorebi’ schools security guards/patrols. Each week, I had to write a report for the Minister for Education, giving my suggestions for improvement, and observation of any behavioural issues from staff or students and looking at things like whether the school had windows, electricity, heating, or resources. It was a tough job, being the first foreigner that most of the people had ever met and not having the languages of my different schools. I had to earn the trust of the staff and students, but also report to the government about them, good or bad, and fit in within a tight community, which was new to me culturally.

Oceans Project started when I was given a class of mainly refugee and IDP children from Russia, Armenia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Ossettia and a region of Georgia called Svanetia. They barely had a communal language between them and I was told by a teacher not to waste time on them because they were “un-teachable”. So I started off very softly, letting them watch DVDs on my old laptop. Just getting them to engage was difficult so TV was something that became a medium for exposing them to English and getting them to trust me.

In that first lesson we watched the BBC Oceans television series and they were totally mesmerised. Over time, we started an after school club, which became a summer school and I started organising some trips to clean up plastic from the rivers, something very pioneering in Georgia, as there was no culture of volunteerism as such. We introduced the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for the first time and soon we had students from other schools joining us.

It was only when we had human rights protests and government elections that we trialled an online platform for the first time as we were fearful of students getting hurt whilst crossing protests areas. That was when we suddenly found that we had all these students from around the world sign up for the platform, even though we hadn’t advertised it. They were mainly girls who were not allowed to attend school in their country, or children living where there was war. It was a real eye opener and shock to realise that all these children were hungry for the opportunity to learn but didn’t have a school to go to. We now have over 17,000 students aged 5-19 in over 56 countries, and the hope is that through ocean rowing, we can raise enough money to provide access to the platform, to some of the 53 million children around the world who have no access to education.

The Great British Viking Quest: this is the theme for the first ocean row, a world first solo row around Great Britain, which will follow the Viking routes around Britain from 1000 years ago, comparing how STEM has changed between the two pioneering and cutting edge journeys. As a child I was absolutely crazy about Vikings, but never had the chance to study history. Living abroad and interacting with so many young people in other countries, I’ve come to realise how little I know about my own culture and heritage: my Viking ancestors as a British islander. As I visit more and more schools across the UK, I’m shocked at how many young people don’t realise we live on an island, or that have never been to the sea. So the aim is to use technology to be the eyes and ears of the young people. As a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society I’m passionate about geography, so I really hope that by exposing young people to the outdoors, they too will become interested in where we live, why we settled here, and how things like STEM are vital in areas such as ship building, energy production, food sourcing, and so on.

Why do you think it is important to educate children on science and ocean literacy?

Because we are an island nation and 95% of our planet is covered in water. The ocean connects each of us, especially for things like trade. For example, as a Brit, I really love to drink a cup of tea, but I often forget that ships are used even today to import tea from China to England, to companies such as Yorkshire Tea who then sell it in the supermarkets. What happens to the people in China who grow the tea, will have a knock on effect to me as a tea drinker, but also to each profession involved in bringing that tea to me as a consumer… the ship builder, the mariner, the train that transports it, the machines that make it and create the packaging.

It’s quite ironic, that technology and things like the World Wide Web mean that we have more access than ever to the world, yet we have also become disconnected to the planet. We take it for granted. It’s no good to just lecture children on the importance of science or of the planet, instead you have to find a way to connect them to it; so it is something tangible that they can relate to. It was only when we connected the children in Georgia with the river and showed them that it ran into the sea, that they became upset and then passionate about the culture of throwing rubbish into the river to simply wash away. When they saw first hand the impact it had on wildlife and the health of local people, it was easy to understand and the changes in their behaviour became changes in those around though… a ripple effect. If we had just spoken to them in a classroom, they wouldn’t have become active in making changes.

What, in your opinion, are the differences in attitudes to science in the UK and Georgia?

In Georgia, I seldom met a young person who was going to be a scientist, because the political situation had led to an increase in journalists and lawyers, and those who wanted to do science were discouraged. Almost everyone I met was a lawyer or journalist or training to be one, it was the ‘in’ thing. The wonderful thing about Oceans Project was that we brought together all of these different children and adult volunteers who loved science or conservation, but were generally alone in that passion and were suddenly surrounded by like-minded people that they could now have conversations and discussions with.

Many of the science professors I met were elderly and concerned that there would be no one to follow them through the ranks, to continue the tradition of teaching. Even teaching itself was not considered a worthy job and teachers were one of the worst paid professions in the country and could lose their jobs at the drop of a hat. Teachers had to subside their income by giving private lessons after school just to make ends meet. Students without the money to buy books or to have a private tutor inevitably failed. Teachers were not valued, but education was in some ways and for our young people, the opportunity to use something like Skype to connect with a scientist or field researcher was a really big deal. It makes me sad that students in the UK can sometimes be so lethargic and begrudging about the fact that they have to go to school and the attitudes to learning are very different to the energy and excitement I found in Georgia. One of my hopes is that through Oceans Project, our platform will bring together those who think it unfair they have to go to school, with those who risk their lives to have just the smallest opportunity to have access to education. So they can learn from each other.

You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @oceansproject and @arrancat