“The mission is not to turn everyone into a scientist. It is, instead, to expand their appreciation and awareness of our ocean planet.” - Jenny Cook, Discovery Hall Programs Educator
For many years, Jenny Cook was the public face of Discovery Hall Programs. In November, she lost her prolonged and painful battle with cancer. Many will feel her loss both as a person, colleague, and educator. Through her work, she reached thousands of students and her impact on marine science education transcended generations of learners and ocean enthusiasts.
Jenny fell in love with the marine environment as a child fishing on Dauphin Island. While taking undergraduate courses at the University of South Alabama, she felt drawn to combine her passion for the island with her passion for teaching marine science which led her to pursue a graduate degree in secondary education at the USA. Along with her education coursework, she was required to take science courses, and it was then that she crossed paths with Dr. Judy Stout who would come to be one of her mentors.
Dr. Stout, who was a Dauphin Island Sea Lab scientist and an adjunct professor at the USA at that time, first remembers Jenny as a student in her Ocean Sciences class and how she fixed a 16mm projector during class one day. Their connection began with an understanding of studying secondary education, and it grew stronger because of their common interest in marine science.
“We would talk about what I was doing at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL), and she learned she could take classes at the lab and have them count towards her bachelor's degree,” Dr. Stout remembers. “She had so much to offer as a teacher, and her curiosity and interest in research just augmented her talents as a teacher. It just made a beautiful package.”
During Jenny’s time as an undergraduate, she nurtured her love of teaching by becoming a part of Discovery Hall Programs. Dr. John Dindo, the DHP Chair at the time, remembers her passion for teaching and her impact on the students.
“Jenny was so excited about just having the opportunity to interview down here. That just started it off perfectly,” Dr. Dindo said. “She started teaching right away, and she was just wonderful. She got all of the kids excited about everything that she was excited about. When they left the lab, after being with Jenny, they really learned a lot.”
Many who worked with her will remember that Jenny knew how to draw the students into a lesson, and engage their curiosity. She would challenge them in ways that best fit their own learning style, while gently offering assistance along the way. Her teaching style led students to feel a sense of personal accomplishment when they connected with the facts placed before them.
Rissa Stephens, an earth science teacher at Emma Sansom Middle School in Gadsden, Alabama, has brought students to the DISL since 2005 and worked alongside Jenny as a counselor during the summer months. As a statement of Jenny’s impact on teachers as well as students, Stephens says she strives to emulate Jenny’s teaching method in her classroom.
“She was an educator, but the kids didn’t see her as an educator. She had this totally different vibe about her. With her, they were able to be themselves and let down their guard,” Stephens shared. “It also didn’t seem to matter how long she was with a group, she could always hone in on the child that needed a little a bit extra. She would draw them out with questions or let them accomplish things.”
Stephens recalled one of those moments during a summer camp when a little boy became interested in a school of tiny burrfish at the beach. Jenny encouraged the doubtful student to go catch some of those fish.
“He went out and cupped them with his hands and was able to bring them back,” Stephens said. “He did this about three or four times, and he had a nice big bunch of fish. He was so proud of himself. Within a couple of minutes, everyone was crowding around him, looking at the captured fish. You would not believe the transformation that was in that child with just that small little thing.”
Harrand Creek Elementary School teacher Marty Dunn also spent time during summers as a counselor with DHP. He remembered Jenny also had a way of keeping students on task with just a look.
“She would never get on to the students, just steer them back on track with the ‘Jenny look’,” Dunn said. “Every student always seemed to take something away from her presentation. I can’t tell you the number of students that came back to visit her. That’s how much they appreciated her.”
Over the years, many of Jenny’s students sought her advice on projects, came back as teachers for professional development, or brought their own children to DISL to have the same experience they remembered.
“Jenny found special joy in mentoring, hearing from previous students, and knowing that she was teaching the children of men and women she had taught years before,” Dr. Tina Miller-Way, DHP Chair recently said. “Jenny was a true Southern lady and made sure that when we hosted the annual national meeting of marine educators, we integrated true southern hospitality into all aspects of the meeting.”
For some, Jenny’s teaching led them to stand with her in the classroom. Mendel Graeber and JoAnn Moody, both now DHP educators, were once Jenny’s students. Moody first met Jenny in the summer of 1998 as a student in the Marine Science Course for high school students.
“At that time, I had fairly stereotypical aspirations about becoming a marine biologist. By the end of my time at DISL, I had a much better picture of what I wanted to be. I wanted to be Jenny!,” Moody shared. “I wanted to be the one standing in front of the class getting students excited about oceanography or marine chemistry. I wanted to be the person taking kids to the salt marsh for the first time.”
Based on her experiences with Jenny, Moody set out to accomplish her new goal. She frequently visited with Jenny during her time in college and credits Jenny for her encouragement and passion for teaching with her accomplishing her goal of becoming a DHP educator.
Jenny’s contributions to marine science education reached beyond the Dauphin Island Sea Lab campus. She shared her lessons at educational conferences across the state of Alabama and the country.
In July, the National Marine Educators Association (NMEA) recognized Jenny’s time in the classroom with the Johnette D. Bosarge Memorial Award. This award is given annually to the NMEA member who exhibits loyalty, efficiency, and enthusiasm for marine and aquatic education. The award is named for NMEA’s administrative assistant Johnette Bosarge who helped the organization run a smooth operation. Bosarge was also a friend and colleague of Jenny’s and a supporter of DHPs’ work. Through this award, DHP purchased a wheelchair which will allow students with disabilities to easily reach the ocean’s edge via the beach.
The DHP team surprised Jenny with the news in a video chat. While she was overwhelmed with their gesture, she was more interested in hearing what was going on with the DHP students and educators during her absence as a result of her illness.
“That’s the sweetest thing ever. I’m honored and deeply touched. I love y’all so much,” Jenny said. “I think about y’all every day. What you’re doing, and where you are, and what’s going on.”
Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant also recently recognized Jenny’s impact on marine education during the Bays and Bayous Symposium in late November. Director LaDonn Swann presented the award of excellence in education to Jenny’s sister Amy Bridges.
To celebrate her 30 years at the DISL, Jenny penned a spotlight article in which she expressed her gratitude for having been a part of Discovery Hall Programs for all those years.
“It's through these programs that the Dauphin Island Sea Lab reaches out to everyone with an invitation to explore the ocean. I so enjoy learning what our scientists are discovering and sharing that with my students, young and old.”
Jenny loved teaching, and she loved opening the door to the wonders of the ocean and possibilities during the four-week long residential Marine Science Course for High School students. In her honor, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, with the help of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Foundation, established a scholarship for a high school student wishing to attend the course.
“It’s our way of honoring Jenny and her contributions to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab,” Dr. Miller-Way said. “Jenny would be pleased to have a legacy that included making the ocean world known to all who desire to learn regardless of their life circumstances.”
If you would like to support this opportunity and Jenny’s lifetime efforts, please consider contributing to the Jenny Cook Scholarship Fund by clicking here.