Ventura Unified School District Offers Students Environmental Challenge

“Watts Up!” – Kelly Cooke and Sasha Benitez won $900 as first-place winners in the Energy Tier. Images courtesy of the MERITO Foundation.

Students will present proposals to reduce schools’ environmental footprint and receive cash prizes

In May, the MERITO Foundation and Ventura Unified School District (VUSD) hosted the 9th annual EECCOA Challenge Awards Ceremony. At this event, 7th-12th-grade student finalists presented their environmental business proposals to either reduce their school’s carbon footprint or advocate for removing the relic Matilija Dam from the Ventura River. The primary sponsor of this year’s EECCOA Challenge was the Clean Power Alliance.

For the EECCOA Challenge, students had the option of choosing a project theme from four categories: water conservation and waste reduction at their school campuses, energy efficiency at their homes, or outreach about the ecological benefits of the Matilija dam removal. This multidisciplinary competition allowed our youth to combine environmental science with green entrepreneurship and environmental advocacy. School administrators benefit from hearing from students about improving their schools’ infrastructure, reducing thousands of pounds of greenhouse gases and utility costs.

Water Fountain Woes” – Olivia Mowd, Rihanna Samples and Merric Bayless won $750 as first-place winners in the Water Tier

Held at the Poinsettia Pavilion in Ventura, the keynote speaker for the event was Holly Lohuis, marine biologist, educator, and naturalist in the Santa Barbara area, working for a variety of organizations, including Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, and Island Packers-boat concessionaire to the Channel Islands National Park. A Ventura Unified School District (VUSD) representative also addressed parents, students, and all attendees.

This year, 50 teams competed in the EECCOA Challenge 2024, from students attending Buena High School, Ventura High School, Foothill Technology High School, and DATA Middle School. After the first round of judging, the top 16 finalists presented their projects in person before the judges at the May 20th event. After the presentations, the MERITO Foundation and VUSD awarded cash or in-kind prizes for each category for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and Honorable Mention. All participating students have been immersed since September 2023 in MERITO Foundation’s “Ventura Action Network” (V-RAN) Program or “From the Avenue to Channel Islands (ATCI) program in partnership with the VUSD.

“Paint the River” – Harper Thorn and Rey Brookes won $750 as first-place winners in
the Matilija Dam Outreach Tier

The V-RAN program provided professional development, field training, and curriculum to science teachers and hands-on field experiences to ~735 middle and high school students throughout the Ventura River watershed and coast. Through the ATCI program, 580 students from DATA Middle School enjoyed outdoor experiences at the Ventura River, State Beaches, and the Channel Islands. In addition to environmental education, students also participated in biking, hiking, kayaking, camping, snorkeling, sailing, and surfing, and learned leadership skills which they put into practice at outdoor community events.

“Stop the Drip” – Alexandra Esquivel, Gracelynn Beas, Lelimaine Tagi, and Nataly
Sandoval won $400 as second-place winners in the Water Tier.

Sponsors for the V-RAN Program included NOAA B-WET Grant, Ventura Water, and UC Davis Center for Community and Citizen Science. The ‘From the Avenue to the Channel Islands’ (ATCI) Program of the MERITO Foundation was funded by the Outdoors Equity Grant, created through AB 209 and administered by California State Parks, Office of Grants, and Local Services.

The MERITO Foundation is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization based in Ventura, CA. It is dedicated to protecting the ocean by facilitating environmental education, conservation, and scientific research opportunities for multicultural youth and their communities. It has immersed over 27,000 4th-12th grade students enrolled in Title 1 schools in ocean science and ocean protection and has disbursed over $50,000 in cash prizes to student winners of previous EECCOA Challenges.

MERITO Board Members and EECCOA Judges (left to right): Alejandra Belacázar (City of Ventura, Community Outreach Specialist), Cliff Rodrigues (MERITO Board President), Linda Chilton (MERITO Treasurer), Ernesto Dúran (Ventura County Office of Education, Regional Director, Region 8 County Lead), Rocío Lozano-Knowlton (Founder and Director of MERITO Foundation).
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