Every so often, we have the rare fortune to experience transformational moments that change how we see ourselves and the world around us. This was the case for me in early 2023. 

Underwater shot of coral reef and fish in St. Lucia Under the ocean in St. Lucia © Sandra Turner

The Caribbean is beautiful and one of the most captivating regions of the world. Yet it is disproportionately vulnerable to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes that have been exasperated by the impacts of climate change. As a National Geographic–certified educator and explorer specializing in oceanography and climate science, my fieldwork takes me across the Caribbean to help restore marine habitats and coastal resilience. Research finds that the mental health of children in the Caribbean is also disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

When time allows, I make it a point to visit local schools to help students understand the importance of protecting our ocean and the science behind climate change. Over the course of that year, I had gotten to know one group of ninth-grade students on the island of Jamaica quite well. One morning during our class, an intense hurricane was brewing in the Atlantic Ocean, and, for the first time, I witnessed childhood trauma. Their webcams were mostly turned off, which was unusual; those who kept them on were visibly despondent.

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With some quick thinking, I decided to forgo my lecture on rising sea levels, which included images of floods and decimated coastlines. Instead, I showed students underwater footage of the coral restoration work my team and I recently completed off the north coast of Jamaica. I also shared short video clips of the lush landscapes surrounding the island’s beloved Blue Mountain range. After the videos, I shared a few affirmations and explained how I use daily affirmations to help conquer my fear of swimming in the ocean’s deep blue waters and hiking up steep mountain trails. 

What happened next was miraculous. I saw students’ eyes begin to lighten as their cameras turned on. Their faces softened as they sat transfixed, watching the video. They cheered with amazement as they watched a local cliff diver perform a backward triple somersault before plunging into a hidden waterfall. After the video, we discussed our human connection to the ocean and natural landscapes.

Later that evening, I reflected on how the iridescent blue ocean scenes and rich landscapes seemed to awaken their senses and create in them a sense of calm and ease. Astonished by what I had witnessed, I combed the internet for words to help describe my student’s transformational experience. That’s how I stumbled upon the concept of awe!

The presence of something vast

“The epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life,” writes psychologist and GGSC cofounder Dacher Keltner in his latest book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. “In awe we understand we are part of many things that are much larger than the self.”

He defines awe as the “feeling or an emotion of being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that transcends your current understanding of the world.” Keltner further explains that the vastness we perceive challenges our existing knowledge and compels us to seek a greater understanding of phenomena. Awe draws our attention away from the self and turns our attention to other phenomena and to that which is larger than life. If that isn’t enough, research finds that awe improves our well-being and mental health in the face of uncertainties. Awe helps us to find meaning and a purpose in life.

With just a few short video clips and the opportunity to share what I find so fascinating about the ocean and other natural landscapes, I was astonished to see how inspired my students were to learn more about conservation. Their faces were aglow as they asked a barrage of questions and shared their thoughts with each other. One student expressed how he felt uplifted and strong when he saw the towering Blue Mountains. Another shared that she had been feeling depressed lately, and the video “made me feel like I can make a difference in my community by learning to do restoration work, too!”

Motivated by my students’ experience, I spent most of 2023 immersed in Dacher Keltner’s research on the science of awe, and I also took the Greater Good Science Center’s course Awe in Education: Creating Learning Environments That Inspire, Motivate, and Heal.

Large mountain range with sun shining and clouds above Morne Trois Pitons National Park in Dominica © Sandra Turner

With generous funding from the National Geographic Society, my team and I curated more engaging activities integrating multimedia content from my exploration fieldwork. These activities were designed to inspire awe and healing spaces to help counter the stress, anxieties, and trauma that vulnerable students often face due to climate impacts. These trauma-informed and culturally responsive activities shift the focus away from natural disasters and catastrophes, which are often overemphasized in climate education, and help students understand their connection to the vast and wondrous world around them.

Through careful observation and student feedback, I found that when placed in a safe, nurturing environment and engaged in meaningful, expressive, and guided activities, most of the children who participated in the exercises stated that they were able to experience awe. Here are two favorites.

1. Awe-inspiring affirmation practice

The “Awe-Inspiring Affirmation” practice helps foster resilience by cultivating inner voices of happiness. To help foster deep connections to nature and universal belonging, students view images and videos of vast and awe-inspiring landscapes and listen to motivational speeches, music, poetry, and performing arts that exude transformation.

After this, students create their own inspiring affirmations (written or spoken positive phrases) to raise their awe vibrations and affirm their self-worth. When we frequently engage in positive self-talk, we open up a new way of believing in ourselves and what we can accomplish. In this practice, awe-inspiring natural landscapes inspire students to write personal affirmations that bring out the best of human capability and goodness. 

To build deeper connections with my students, I share with them how I use affirmations to help me stay focused on positive outcomes and accomplishing personal goals. I then give students a list of affirmations that other students created from previous classes. After reviewing the list, I ask them first to watch an awe-inspiring video and then take a brief moment to reflect on how affirmations might be helpful in their lives. Working alone or with partners, students craft their own affirmations and share them with the class to encourage each other. 

Incorporating activities that inspire awe and affirmations in the classroom is an excellent way to foster deeper connections with your students and promote a positive classroom culture. Affirmations have been found to help students succeed and set a positive tone for the day. Like adults, young people also need time to reflect on what is meaningful and experience moments that inspire awe. By giving students opportunities to ground themselves in positive affirmations, we can help them find purpose and achieve their goals. Most importantly, creating space for reflection can help students slow down and find comfort during times of uncertainty.

2. Seeking connection to vastness

Research finds that reflecting on vastness can help negate students’ stress and help them gain a new perspective on life. In this practice, students watch a video about the vastness of the universe and are invited to share how it made them feel about their existence and interconnection with all living things. This practice can also be modified by integrating an awe-inspiring video and relevant questions for a specific lesson or curriculum activity.

For my students, I replaced the suggested video with drone footage I captured while exploring the vast landscapes of Dominica, the Caribbean’s “Nature Island.” Students were captivated by its beauty. Many had never traveled to other Caribbean islands and were awestruck to see Dominica’s resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The practice helped my students be aware that they are connected to something larger than the worries and stress they often feel.

In the face of a global mental health crisis and unprecedented climate change impacts around the world, we must be willing to constantly adapt and refine our educational practices to meet the evolving emotional needs of our students. By doing so, we can offer students moments to pause, build emotional resilience, and be inspired by the awe and beauty of the world around them. I hope all children will know they are an intricate part of a vast universe of possibilities.

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