Riding the waves of knowledge: A conversation with Frances Lang on education and marine conservation

You may notice the landscape of conservation is evolving, becoming increasingly diverse each day, with a growing number of people expressing their interest in getting involved.

Numerous opportunities are available, indicating a positive outlook for the future of ocean health. However, amid this positivity, a challenging reality remains – the task of enhancing ocean literacy and thereby ensuring that knowledge translates to conservation action.

Frances Lang, Program Officer at The Ocean Foundation, sheds light on this issue. She shares her journey into marine conservation, her passion for education, and the most pressing needs in the conservation sector right now.

What made you choose conservation work?

“I’ve always had a deep love of animals. As a child, my home was filled with pets, and I was surrounded by wildlife. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed significant changes in the natural world over the years.”

“This love for nature, instilled in me by my parents and teachers, together with an awareness of the changing landscape, has shaped my career journey. From an early age, I had an innate sense that my path would lead me to conservation.”

The Ocean Foundation works internationally and Frances currently leads the Teach For the Ocean Initiative to optimize ocean education to drive conservation action.

Falling in Love with Education

“What took me by surprise, however, was falling in love with education. I’ve always enjoyed communicating and connecting with people, and I came to realize this was my path to make a difference. I discovered that education is a powerful tool for initiating change and it became the driving force behind my commitment to conservation.”

“My passion for ocean conservation specifically felt like a natural calling. Growing up in Southern California, spending a lot of time at the beach; the ocean was such an important part of my life. That’s how I found my way into this field.”

How did you discover the impact of education?

“I held various jobs working with kids, but my actual introduction to education happened during college. I participated in an internship that connected kids to nature. The program provided unstructured outdoor play and exploration opportunities for children from all backgrounds.”

“I found immense joy in this experience, and I knew this was something I wanted to explore further. Witnessing the transformations in these children was remarkable. Fortunately, there is so much research now showing the positive impacts of youth being in nature, particularly around water. It has a profound calming effect and nurtures important life skills.

While the benefits extend to all ages, it’s especially crucial for young children to experience nature during their formative years.

Transformative Power of Education

“I also noticed the children’s day-to-day stress from school and other things dissolve, allowing wonderful skills like analytical and critical thinking to flourish. They also engaged in physical activity, which improves health and mental wellbeing.”

“Establishing this connection to nature from an early age is so important. While the benefits extend to all ages, it’s especially crucial for young children to experience nature during their formative years. This period is instrumental in self-discovery, building one’s core values, and fostering a lifelong compassion for wildlife.”

When is the most important time for kids to connect with nature?

“The earlier the better. When offered the chance to connect with nature in their early years, particularly if they have repeated opportunities to access the natural world; those experiences will linger.”

“Compassion for nature and wildlife is likely to grow intuitively and unfold effortlessly. When conservation becomes an integral part of education, it seamlessly blends into our lives, leaving a lasting impact.”

Frances has worked for over 16 years as a marine educator, including her previous role leading the San Diego-based organization Ocean Connectors.

Moving on to your role as the founder of Ocean Connectors, could you describe the driving force behind starting this organization?

“Moving to the city of San Diego, California after college was an enormous shift for me. A lot more people, lots of industry – I experienced this urban environment, and it was very different from the place I grew up. I started reflecting on my childhood and noticed that young people living in cities, especially in lower-income areas, were largely missing out on the opportunities I had growing up, like spending time outside, visiting the beach, and caring for animals.”

“This realization inspired me, a sort of awakening to the fact that not all children have equal access to what I believe is one of the most vital elements of growing up: a connection with nature. Even if it’s right in their own backyard, many obstacles can stand in the way.”

“This led me to establish Ocean Connectors to educate, inspire, and connect youth with the ocean. My goal was to ensure that every child we served could experience the wonders of the sea.”

In 2022 you transitioned to a position with The Ocean Foundation. What inspired this move?

“I was ready to take on a new challenge with an organization I have known and loved for a long time. I admired the global work of The Ocean Foundation (TOF) and hoped to be part of the growing movement that is TOF.”

“The core values of TOF really align with my personal beliefs; equity, accountability, and integrity. It felt like a natural next step in my career path and I felt I could make a meaningful contribution to the great work TOF was already doing in the field of ocean literacy.”

TOF’s work on Ocean Literacy

“TOF has been actively involved in supporting ocean literacy and marine education for over 20 years. In 2006, long before I was involved, TOF co-sponsored the first-ever Conference on Ocean Literacy in partnership with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and others.”

“This conference brought together senior government officials, experts in formal and informal education, non-governmental organizations, and industry representatives to help lay the groundwork for developing a national strategy for creating an ocean-literate society. For me, building on that work and formalizing TOF’s efforts in this area was an important opportunity.”

In your current role you are focusing on educators and aiming to bridge the knowledge-to-action gap by developing new tools and techniques to optimize ocean education. Can you tell us a bit more about the Teach For the Ocean Initiative?

“In my previous roles, I observed that effective communication is key; it’s not just about what you communicate but how you communicate it. This concept is fundamental to marine education.”

“Simply conveying knowledge and sharing facts is not enough to improve global ocean health because knowledge alone does not change someone’s lifestyle, habits, and behaviors. We need to shift our focus toward conservation action. Creating environmental action is crucial, and this applies to individuals at all levels of society.”

I believe strongly that by shifting the way we teach, we can encourage new patterns.

Moving beyond knowledge transmission

Teach For the Ocean targets marine educators, including classroom teachers, informal educators, educators at aquariums, tour guides, and more. Essentially, we aim to reach anyone who has a role in educating the public, or anyone who is in a position to influence others.”

“Our goal is to shift the way educators teach about the ocean, focusing on tools and techniques that encourage new patterns and habits for the ocean. We achieve this by providing training modules, information and networking resources, and mentorship services. In essence, we support our community of marine educators, enabling them to collaborate more effectively and enhance their approach to teaching.”

Everyone can spark change

“I believe strongly that teachers have the power to change our relationship with the ocean. The first vital step is realizing that everyone has  the potential to spark change; whether it’s our political leaders, teachers, students, scientists, or someone else. It’s this collective empowerment that can bring about systemic change, making learning an exciting journey for all.”

Frances Lang is a Program Officer at The Ocean Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to improving global ocean health, climate resilience, and the blue economy.

Your career has provided you with various perspectives on conservation and education. What do you believe the conservation sector needs most right now?

“I’ve explored conservation education from various angles, and what stands out to me is the need for optimism. As the environmental impacts related to climate change, pollution, and habitat loss become more and more obvious, it is challenging to maintain faith in our ability to overcome these problems.”

“Elements of hope, optimism, and empowerment are critical, especially when working with young people, but truly in working with anyone. Collaborating and working with different partners, as well as centering diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, are also essential aspects of conservation.”

With diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice as core organizational values, The Ocean Foundation acknowledges and works hard to address disparities and promote equitable opportunities and practices in marine conservation worldwide. What do you consider to be the most important thing in creating equal access to marine conservation? And what are the biggest barriers?

“Working internationally, I have observed diverse perspectives on nature and the ocean. In some regions of the world, the ocean is viewed primarily as a resource for human survival, while in other areas, it represents a rich tapestry of spiritual, cultural, and ethical significance.”

“Understanding the communities we work with and the depth of their connection with the ocean is a fundamental first step.”

Identifying Barriers and Challenges

Last year at TOF, we administered a community needs assessment of marine educators working in the Caribbean region, and found the most significant barriers to career advancement to be the limited availability of jobs, financial hardship, and a lack of access to networking opportunities.”

“Understanding these barriers is crucial to creating equal access to marine conservation programs and careers. We aim to address these disparities by collaborating with partners to support our community of marine educators worldwide.”

“As an organization, TOF works to create partnerships to connect all people in the communities in which we work to the resources they need to achieve their ocean stewardship goals. Looking toward the community and listening to diverse voices is our top priority.”

Reflecting on your career thus far, you’ve had significant achievements and received a number of awards. What are you most proud of, and what advice would you give to individuals aspiring to follow in your footsteps in the conservation field?

“As I reflect on my time with Ocean Connectors, I’m thrilled to witness its continued success under remarkable new leadership.”

“At The Ocean Foundation, I take pride in being trusted to build a new program. It represents a fresh challenge and a learning process, and I’m enjoying that journey once again. I find great joy in the creativity involved in designing a new program.”

“In addition, I’m creating a new course for UC San Diego, centered around ocean conservation behavior. This marks an exciting new chapter in my career as a marine educator.”

So when you are up working those late hours, never doubt your mission; it’s crucial work.

Never doubt your mission

“My advice for aspiring conservationists? Always believe in your mission; it will carry you through.”

“One of my mentors taught me this early on in my career. The non-profit sector, especially in conservation, can be challenging. Funds are sometimes tight, staff capacity can be limited, and many in the field juggle multiple responsibilities.”

“So when you are up working those late hours, never doubt your mission; it’s crucial work. I’ve discovered that those working in the conservation field are some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. Remember that you are never alone in this work.”

“Also, everyone has a role to play. It is important to think creatively about where you can make the biggest impact. My advice is to take the time to find your place in conservation. Allow yourself that space; then translate your passion into a mission that resonates with you.”

Seek mentors

“For me, mentors were an invaluable part of my growth. I’ve been fortunate to have many wonderful mentors who shaped my career journey. This is why I am excited that our Teach For the Ocean initiative at TOF offers mentorship services for aspiring and early-career marine educators, and we are also publishing an Ocean Mentoring Guide.”

“I recommend listening carefully to your mentors, asking for the support you need, and considering all points of view.”

Conclusion: The immense potential for positive change

Frances’ journey through marine conservation and education reflects her dedication and a deep love for fostering change. It serves as inspiration for those seeking a purposeful path in conservation, with her call for optimism echoing throughout her work.

Frances encourages aspiring conservationists to find their own unique role in the field and she emphasizes the importance of education in bridging gaps and fostering a sustainable future for our ocean.

Not only does she illuminate the challenges of ensuring equal access to nature, but she also underscores the huge potential for positive change. In these challenging times, her words leave us with feelings of hope, optimism, and empowerment.

To stay apprised of Frances’ work, sign up for The Ocean Foundation’s Ocean Literacy email newsletter here. Learn more about the Teach For the Ocean initiative here.

If you’re interested in a career in conservation education, marine conservation or both, you might enjoy this Ultimate Guide to Marine Conservation Jobs | Protecting the Blue Planet and Conservation Educator role profile.


Author Profile | Marije Meijer

Marije is a freelance writer who is passionate about ocean conservation education. What she loves most about her job is telling stories. Connecting with people and sharing knowledge is such a powerful tool in raising awareness about conservation. Marije dedicated a big part of her studies in philosophy to (in)equality and ethics; and was particularly interested in the concept of decency as a common language; as complementary to (social) justice. Decency is a concept that offers common ground and it translates well into the way we treat nature, wildlife and communities. With this at heart, she turns conversations into communication.

Connect with Marije on LinkedIn.


Interviews, Senior Level, Educator, Marine Conservation Jobs