Environmental Heroes 2013

The earliest people understood the integrity of nature: that what happens at the mountain's top affects the ocean's depths. We contemporary islanders are fortunate to have individuals whose actions remind us of that wisdom, whether they serve as committed volunteers, or by making their passion their profession.

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Ann CoopersmithAnn Coopersmith
Unquenchable Commitment

It’s on a December morning that I catch up, via Skype, to hurricane Frannie (“I’d rather be just ‘Frannie,’ like Sting, or Cher.”), the beloved, silver-maned marine educator and indefatigable associate professor of marine biology at UH-Maui College. She is relaxing for a change, visiting family in San Francisco, but still gives me her undivided energy and a great heaping dollop of easy humor. I can just glimpse a shimmery hint of the Pacific Ocean through the window near Frannie’s left shoulder.  Her famous cascade of untamable hair shifts in the clean Bay Area light.

Frannie’s resume says she is also a curriculum developer, teacher trainer, textbook and newsletter editor, Marine Option Program advisor (at UH-Maui) and National Marine Educators Association board member. John Mitchell, education and outreach programs director for Alaka‘ina Foundation/Digital Bus Programs, which develops innovative educational programs for kids, says simply, “She has positively touched every person she has come in contact with. . . . Every student, no matter what their background, is inspired and motivated by her.”

Frannie clarifies: “I see my work as an intrinsic part of me, rather than a job for money. Environmental issues are critical. Awareness is the key. So one of the first things we do in my ecology class is calculate [each student’s] ecological footprint. This exercise shows that five planets would be required if everyone on Earth lived [the American] lifestyle. [The students] begin to understand and it blows their minds.”

Many of those students are now in teaching and administrative positions in schools around the island, presenting their Ph.D. research at professional meetings, or hard at work in the field at Haleakala National Park, Maui Invasive Species Committee, the state’s Division of Aquatic Resources, Maui Ocean Center, Women in Technology, and Digital Bus. Meagan Jones, Ph.D., executive director of Whale Trust, calls Frannie “a true Maui legend and a one-of-a-kind, salt-of-the-earth treasure. Besides her family, there is nothing she loves more than teaching — especially when it involves going to the beach and sharing all the things she holds so dear.”

Shannon Wianecki, former student and now writer and environmental educator, explains that “Frannie’s style of education doesn’t stop at the classroom door. She gets students engaged in the community, and herself volunteers tons of time and energy to marine conservation. She helped create and test the first lessons of the Ho‘ike o Haleakala curriculum [the first Hawai‘i-based environmental-science curriculum designed for high school]. She’s a conduit, connecting people who become collaborators, always saying, ‘You know who you should talk to. . . .’ She’s a real-life, silver-haired mermaid with just as much enthusiasm for life and learning as she must’ve had as a kid.”

Frannie doesn’t consider herself a scientist, “although I’ve been one and I loved it,” because “collecting data and repeating protocol wasn’t very exciting for me. What was missing was the human element. I’d rather teach how to do it.”  Her eyes shift away from me toward the window and crinkle into a smile. “And I’d rather teach at the beach.”

— Judy Edwards

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