University of South Florida

USF College of Marine Science


South St. Pete youth become ‘Guardians of the Gulf’ with USF

Group picture - Guardians of the Gulf

Guardians of the Gulf group picture.

ST. PETERSBURG - Nearly 25 youth from the Royal Theater Boys & Girls Club of the Suncoast (BGCS) spent three days of their Spring Break becoming ‘Guardians of the Gulf’. Keep an eye out for the yellow t-shirts they earned that say on the back: “I’m a Guardian. … Are YOU?”

Guardians of the Gulf is a STEAM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) about coastal and human resiliency run by the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science (USF CMS). Its mission is to provide a multisensory program that introduces youth to the interconnectivity of our natural environment, empowers them to realize what’s at stake, and inspires them toward action.  The program targets youth ages 7-13.

“The complex challenges we all face, from more intense storms to escalating heat and sea levels, require all-hands-on-deck,” said program lead Kristen Kusek, who is also the communications director at the USF CMS. “Down the line we’d like our Guardians to be competitive for jobs that are cropping up around the need to make our coastal areas more resilient – if they choose to do so – and it all starts with having fun in the environment.”  

One day of the camp was held at the Royal Theater Boys & Girls Club facility, and two days were held at the waterfront Clam Bayou Marine Education Center that is managed by the USF CMS.  

“We work hard to provide our Guardians with a fun assortment of activities aimed at different learners, from hands-on to digital,” said program manager and content lead Sarah Grasty, who also works as education and outreach manager for a mapping center at the USF CMS. “We like to call it disguised learning, a term we learned from our partners at the BGCS.”

During the three-day program, the Guardians participants earned badges for completing several tasks, including:

  • Executed a seine net tow to see what fish live in our coastal waterways
  • Learned about the difference between green infrastructure, like mangroves and seagrasses, and gray infrastructure, such as seawalls
  • Collected data like real scientists about weather, wildlife, waste, and more
  • Performed a coastal clean-up that included ridding the environment of invasive species
  • Painted a rain barrel that will be used to help keep the garden at the Royal Theater healthy while recycling rainwater
  • Explored and tested the prototype of an augmented reality app that makes it fun to learn how best to save sea turtles from coastal erosion

“It was awesome to see this program in action,” said Maura McCabe, Director of the Royal Theater Boys & Girls Club. “The kids love learning about the ocean and were truly proud to earn their final badges, and t-shirts, as Guardians of the Gulf.”

The program team is seeking additional funding sources to ensure continuity and scalability of the program.

“We’re excited to see how this program will evolve,” said Alison Barlow, head of the St. Petersburg Innovation District and the “smart city” initiative under which the Guardians program was launched. “One day we’d love to see a connected community of Guardians across the state of Florida and beyond.”

Partners in the program include: The St. Petersburg Innovation District, Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast, Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Duke Energy, Charter Spectrum, Future Vision Multisensory Media, US Ignite, The WildFlower Press, and private donors.

You can learn more about the program by visiting

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Mission Statement

Our blue planet faces a suite of challenges and opportunities for understanding and innovation. Our mission is to advance understanding of the interconnectivity of ocean systems and human-ocean interactions using a cross-disciplinary approach, to empower the next workforce of the blue economy with a world-class education experience, and to share our passion for a healthy environment and science-informed decision-making with community audiences near and far.