Educational Institutions

Ocean Discovery Institute

  • San Diego, CA

Mission Statement

Ocean Discovery Institute uses ocean science to engage young people from urban underserved backgrounds and empowers them to transform their lives, their community, and ultimately our world as scientific and environmental leaders.

Main Programs

  1. Ocean Science Explorers
  2. Ocean Leaders
  3. Watershed Avengers
Service Areas



Our model focuses on a single geographic area - a ""school-shed"" - in order to maximize the impact of our work. Our work is focused on the community of City Heights, a densely urbanized community of nearly 80,000 people. The community has a 38% poverty rate and more than 97% of children in the community are eligible for federal free lunch programs. City Heights exhibits cultural and ethnic diversity with over 30 languages spoken and an ethnic breakdown of 59% Hispanic, 11% African-American, 11% Asian-American, 3.5% Caucasian, and 15.5% other.

ruling year


Principal Officer


Shara Fisler



City Heights, San Diego, science education, STEM, environmental stewardship, underserved, ODI

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Cause Area (NTEE Code)

Educational Services and Schools - Other (B90)

Environmental Education and Outdoor Survival Programs (C60)

IRS Filing Requirement

This organization is required to file an IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ.

Programs + Results

How does this organization make a difference?


Self-reported by organization

Our students defy the odds because people like you believe in them. And because of this, they are able to find what we call their ""spark"" - making first-hand discoveries, field research, making a difference - and they then believe in themselves. This belief enables them to overcome incredible challenges and achieve. Our students show increased science test scores, attend 4-year universities at a rate of 8 out of 10 (as compared to 3 out of 10 of their peers), and are entering the science and environmental workforce at unprecedented rates. Ocean Discovery Institute is now a national model for preparing individuals, from the most underrepresented groups and fastest growing demographic in the nation, to become the scientific leaders - leaders who will develop the solutions needed for today's and tomorrow's challenges. Twelve years after our founding, Ocean Discovery Institute was awarded The White House's Presidential Award for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. When we accepted this recognition in the Oval Office, we did so, on behalf of courageous contributors who believed that transforming young lives through science would ultimately transform our communities and our world. In the last year, we have launched a replication effort to provide our model to young people in the Chesapeake Bay area and secured $12 million in capital support to create a landmark science and conservation facility in the heart of the underserved community we serve. The creation of our Living Lab facility is a cornerstone of our next phase of growth and will enable us to quadruple the number of young people engaging and create expectations for the highest achievement. We now enter a critical period for organizational development. During the next three years, we will focus on increasing impacts, improving efficiency, remaining at the forefront of innovation in our field, and providing the greatest return on investment for our supporters. To be successful, we must:
* Grow leadership to affect scaling locally and nationally
* Develop financial strength to have necessary resources to support exemplary impacts today and tomorrow
* Build systems to increase efficiency and enable expansion
* Solidify our exceptional programs and longitudinal measurement to increase impact and transferability


Self-reported by organization

What are the organization's current programs, how do they measure success, and who do the programs serve?

Program 1

Ocean Science Explorers

The Ocean Science Explorers (OSE) initiative will engage over 3,250 public school students and their teachers in robust science and conservation education. The project will reach children when their natural curiosity is high and provide four consecutive years of programming that build students' understanding of scientific concepts. OSE will provide standards-based, science education to every 3rd- 6thgrade public school student in the community, as well as professional development and resources for classroom teachers. Over the course of two months, students will participate in hands-on science activities, a field exploration of an outdoor laboratory, and a locally-based environmental service project. Their teachers will be provided with training and materials to increase their ability to teach science throughout the year. The project will result in an increase in student participation in authentic science, performance on science tests, and action to protect the environment.


Education, General/Other

Population(s) Served

Children Only (5 - 14 years)




Program 2

Ocean Leaders

The Ocean Leaders initiative will engage over 100 middle school, high school, and college-age young people, from urban and diverse backgrounds, in a series of interconnected after-school and summer programs and support services. This initiative offers a pathway for underrepresented students to progress from secondary school through university on to careers in science and conservation. Ocean Leaders is composed of three rigorous programs that build on one another to further students' interest, skills, and content knowledge in the sciences. Intensive support services provide the students with tools to overcome obstacles along their pathways. The project will result in an increase in student participation in authentic science, performance on science tests,attendance in college, selection of science and conservation majors, and ultimately the diversity among tomorrow's science and conservation leaders.


Education, General/Other

Population(s) Served

Youth/Adolescents only (14 - 19 years)



Program 3

Watershed Avengers

Ocean Discovery Institute's community initiative, Watershed Avengers, will engage 750 young people, their families, and community members in science, conservation, and nature- based projects that are relevant to their daily lives. This watershed education and restoration work in local urban canyons is of particular relevance, as increased access to, and safety in, natural spaces have been identified as major concerns of the community. Watershed Avengers is implemented through youth-led canyon restoration events and supported by a robust student internship and unique cross-sector community alliance. The project outcomes will demonstrate success in engaging under-served groups in environmental stewardship projects, increasing local science and environmental leadership, and influencing stewardship actions.


Environment, General/Other

Population(s) Served

Poor/Economically Disadvantaged, Indigent, General




Self-reported by organization

How does this organization measure their results? It's a hard question but an important one. These quantitative program results are self-reported by the organization, illustrating their committment to transparency, learning, and interest in helping the whole sector learn and grow.

1. Number of students, from urban and diverse backgrounds, will increase participation in science, conservation, and nature-based activities.

Target Population
Economically disadvantaged, low-income, and poor people

Connected to a Program?
Ocean Leaders
Context notes for this metric

Charting Impact

Self-reported by organization

Five powerful questions that require reflection about what really matters - results.

  1. What is the organization aiming to accomplish?
    Our goals for the following year include four areas that will enable our growth from serving 6,000 young people each year to serving 20,000 young people on an annual basis. The goals include:
    1)Strengthening Financial Sustainability,
    2)Establishing Holistic Programmatic Approaches,
    3)Building holistic systems,
    4) Preparing for the Living Lab

  2. What are the organization's key strategies for making this happen?
    Goal 1: Strengthening Financial Sustainability
    To prepare for the opening of the Living Lab by raising the final portion of capital campaign funds, while building operational financial sustainability (as defined by our 10-year financial sustainability statement) by generating more revenue derived from consistent, lower risk, unrestricted sources.

    Metric: By 2017, we will have completed the Living Lab capital campaign and transitioned operating support from 25% consistent, 40% annually renewable, 35% variable income to 27.5% consistent, 40% annually renewable, and 32.5% variable income.

    - Research and create new consistent revenue generating business lines.
    - Grow current consistent Visionary Community income.
    - Focus on successfully proven strategies that will grow annually renewable and variable income.

    Goal 2: Establishing Holistic Programmatic Approaches
    To grow our impact (as defined by our 10-year impact statement) by ensuring that students reach their benchmarks at each stage of development.

    - Define the shared standards at each level of development (Ocean Discovery DNA).
    - Implement selective, transformative enhancements that will fulfill critical obligations.
    - Focus on incremental enhancements with a holistic approach across programs.

    Goal 3: Building holistic systems
    To strengthen the collective impact of the organization through the development of inter-departmental systems.

    Metric: By 2017, stakeholder (volunteers, donors, students) data management, risk management, communications, and program/curriculum development and evaluation systems will have been adopted by all departments.

    - Have a central source of what systems are and how they are managed.
    - Integrate existing systems across departments.
    - Develop new systems with holistic approach.

    Goal 4: Preparing for the Living Lab
    To ensure successful operations at the Living Lab.

    Metric: By 2017, we are prepared to reach 8,000 students in the Living Lab's first year in programs that fill critical gaps in ensuring all City Heights students can become leaders and are open to the public, use all aspects of the Living Lab, engage students and teachers during the school day, and bring community together.

    - Prepare the City Heights community for opening of the Living Lab.
    - Ensure the Living Lab design and construction meets goals, timeline, and budget.
    - Define and develop programs to meet required deliverables.
    - Define and develop human resources, infrastructure, and policies and procedures required to operate and maintain the facility.

  3. What are the organization's capabilities for doing this?
    Ocean Discovery has expanded before – albeit on a smaller scale. The organization has developed and maintained two facilities on City of San Diego property. Our current location – consisting of 6,000 square foot re-locatable structures and 3,000 square foot outdoor education space – required the organization to plan, permit, and execute the project.

    In addition, Ocean Discovery Institute has more than 14 years of experience developing and facilitating programs for youth, seniors, and families. The organization has engaged nearly 50,000 individuals in education programs, mobilized more than 15,000 volunteers to steward the environment, and developed more than 60 partnerships with universities, government agencies, and community groups.

    Ocean Discovery is a financially sound 501(c)(3) and has a current annual operating budget of $2.3 million, which it raises from private and public sources.
  4. How will they know if they are making progress?
    Ocean Discovery Institute tracks progress against goals through the development and assessment of our Strategic Business Plan (SBP). The SBP is a map guiding our journey to reach Ocean Discovery Institute's 10-year goals. It is created in two-year increments with the year ahead having the greatest level of resolution. The SBP charts the objectives necessary to accomplish as we progress toward the longer term vision and allows for modification based on additional information, unforeseen challenges, and new opportunities.

    The SBP is an internal document, used regularly by the Board of Directors and staff. It enables decision making at every level of the organization and facilitates cross-communication about accomplishments, areas of concern, and the strategic deferral or addition of objectives. The SBP is comprised of strategic priorities that will improve the strength of the organization and the regular work (e.g., annual programs) of Ocean Discovery Institute.

    Each goal is supported by strategies and specific measurable outcomes. The organization's regular work is considered "annual" and, like the strategic goals, is parsed into measurable outcomes. These outcomes or deliverables are considered "projects" and each is led by a project manager. A Master Plan and supporting Gantt charts are used to benchmark projects (Appendix 2). Staff and board use dashboards to communicate about project status monthly and quarterly, respectively.
  5. What have and haven't they accomplished so far?
    Because our goals are based on work conducted over the course of two years, all of our goals are considered on track. It is important to note that these specific goals as well as the specific strategies outlined in our SBP are dynamic and will continue to be informed and evolved through the process of our regular goal assessment.
Service Areas



Our model focuses on a single geographic area - a ""school-shed"" - in order to maximize the impact of our work. Our work is focused on the community of City Heights, a densely urbanized community of nearly 80,000 people. The community has a 38% poverty rate and more than 97% of children in the community are eligible for federal free lunch programs. City Heights exhibits cultural and ethnic diversity with over 30 languages spoken and an ethnic breakdown of 59% Hispanic, 11% African-American, 11% Asian-American, 3.5% Caucasian, and 15.5% other.

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Funding Needs

Our top 3 needs are as follows: 1. Financial investment to advance our funding model. Why: Our funding model now needs the same level of attention provided to our programs in order build financial strength for the near and long term. Over the past 13 years, we have been successful in annually growing funds raised. We need to leverage strengths to become equally as exceptional at affording our work as we are at executing programs and creating impact. 2. Membership in our Visionary Community. Why: At Ocean Discovery, we understand the power of collective impact. We are working to harness that power by cultivating a new group of supporters for the organization; our Visionary Community. Through automatic monthly contributions, our Visionary Community members are giving opportunity to the next generation of science and environmental leaders. Already over 30 individuals have joined this community. These individuals, who are giving anywhere from $10 to $100 per month, have become part of something really special. They are living proof that a little can go a long way. We need you to join this community and see the impacts of your investment first-hand. 3. Financial investment to expand evaluation to integrate longitudinal impact. Why: Our programs have demonstrated significant outcomes - from increasing science test scores to 7 out of 10 after-school program graduates majoring in the sciences. There is currently a need to extend our evaluation to include longer term data sets. For example, our students are now graduating from college and entering the workforce where we can track their progress and evaluating students' achievement in school post-program involvement can shed light on program outcomes.


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Fiscal year: Jan 01-Dec 31
Yes, financials were audited by an independent accountant.

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The people, governance practices, and partners that make the organization tick.

Ocean Discovery Institute



Free: Gain immediate access to the following:
  • Address, phone, website and contact information
  • Forms 990 for 2015, 2014 and 2014
  • Board Chair, Board Co-Chair and Board Members
  • Access to the GuideStar Community
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Principal Officer

Shara Fisler


Shara Fisler is the Executive Director at Ocean Discovery Institute. She founded Ocean Discovery Institute in 1999 and under her leadership the organization has grown to a full-time staff of 17 and a $1.3 million annual operating budget. Fisler is responsible for securing program resources, leading the executive team, forging new partnerships, and guiding the greater programmatic vision. She has developed highly effective business management practices and sustainability - with more than 30% of staff composed of program graduates who have returned from UC Berkeley and other institutions to empower students like themselves. In 2012, on behalf of Ocean Discovery Institute, Fisler accepted thePresidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoringfrom President Obama in the Oval Office. Fisler has published multiple journal articles on the work of Ocean Discovery and has received several awards, including Sunset magazine's Coastal Heroes Award (2010), and the Western Society of Naturalists' Naturalist of the Year Award (2010). She holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and an M.A. in Marine Resource Management and previously was adjunct faculty at the University of San Diego.

STATEMENT FROM THE Principal Officer

" The work of Ocean Discovery is designed to engage young people early and retain their involvement through college and beyond. Our model focuses on 1 geographic area in order to affect transformative impact.

We provide initiatives at 3 levels:
- Young people, their families and community, engage in science relevant to their lives.
- Elementary and middle school students engage in science and teachers receive professional development.
- Middle school through college-aged students, engage in intensive science research and programs and college/career coaching.

The following is unique to our approach:
1. 100% focus on underserved young people in 1 community.
2. Use of the ocean as a platform to teach STEM.
3. Situated within a STEM economy to provide mentors, career opportunities, and financial investment.
4. Student continuity maintained throughout their development.
5. Regular enhancement based on evaluation and best-practices.
6. Committed leadership with high accountability (including a mechanism to transition leadership to students as they progress).
7. Powerful culture rooted in the belief of young people's abilities.
8. Program design that incorporates authentic experiences, draws on students' diverse assets, removes barriers to access, fosters mentoring, and provides the spark that makes young people want to learn.

Our students' achievements demonstrate the impact of this work. At the high school served, 750 students begin their freshman year, only 300 graduate, and less than 70 continue to 4-year universities. In the face of these frightening statistics, our students defy the odds. 100% of our high school students continue their education, 8 out of 10 enroll in a 4-year university, and half of recent college graduates are already employed in the science sector. "



Kurt Gering

San Diego Regional Airport Authority

Term: Jan 2015 - Dec 2016


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Does the board conduct a formal orientation for new board members and require all board members to sign a written agreement regarding their roles, responsibilities, and expectations?



Has the board conducted a formal, written assessment of the chief executive within the past year?



Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year?



Does the board ensure an inclusive board member recruitment process that results in diversity of thought and leadership?



Has the board conducted a formal, written self-assessment of its performance within the past three years?