1. The Education Gradebook

Cruising into a brighter future

TAMPA — On the top deck of the Florida Aquarium's Bay Spirit II boat, there wasn't a cell phone in sight on April 13 as kids took in views of Port Tampa Bay harbor, including an appearance by some Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

The students, part of Moffitt Cancer Center's Moffitt Healthy Kidz initiative, were fascinated as Christina Doege, the port's marketing coordinator, told them about Busch Gardens' newest ride, Falcon's Fury, being transported into Tampa in pieces via barge.

The students also got a chance to hear from port and aquarium employees about STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) careers.

The 90-minute boat tour and day-long field trip was born out of a chance encounter between Moffitt Healthy Kidz founder and coordinator Nikki Inda and Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson outside of Moffitt, where Anderson serves on the board. When he heard about Healthy Kidz, he immediately offered up Port Tampa Bay to host an event.

And chances are that day may just spur the youths to take up a career in one of those STEAM fields.

"It's so important that we don't just talk about the careers, but we let the kids see them in action," Inda said. "Every child that is interested in science may not become a doctor; that's why we also hear from nurses, physical therapists, even yoga instructors."

"I love being in the program because I was always into medical things, and I never thought I would meet friends who were too," said 13-year-old Hilda Salasvasquez as the group cruised by the Tampa Bay coastline.

After their harbor tour, the kids filed into a room at the aquarium to hear from Vice President of Education Debbi Stone about some STEAM career options, including those at the aquarium.

Stone shifted gears from a career in teaching music to science after an inspirational stint with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Teacher at Sea program, where she worked aboard a research vessel studying whales.

"Be hungry, humble and smart," she told the kids before encouraging them to gain experience through volunteering. "I can't emphasize to you enough how your IQ is not nearly as important as your I-will."

Following Stone's speech, the kids took photos with and touched the tail of Sarah, the aquarium's 13-foot resident Burmese python.

The day's adventure concluded with bowling and a private buffet lunch at Splitsville in Channelside, where a variety of speakers talked about "everything you need to know to grow." Among the presenters were Chris Cooley, the port's director of environmental affairs, and B. Lee Green, Moffitt's vice president of diversity and community relations.

"Moffitt Healthy Kidz is a shining example of how communities working together with kids and educating them about a healthy lifestyle and healthy choices can really impact lives for generation," said Anderson, who joined the group at Splitsville.

The Kidz program recently created the STEAM Role Model Awards scholarship to help graduating high school students achieve their dream STEAM career.

Local students can submit a 500-word essay for a chance at $1,000. Five winners will be announced at an awards ceremony at Moffitt on June 9. Inda hopes the community will rally to support the students.

"We're trying to pass the baton," she said. "We need to mentor those young minds, those future researchers and scientists, and let them pick up the mission to the prevention and cure of cancer."

In a sense, Moffitt Healthy Kidz already has passed the baton to one former student.

Janelle Barrera began volunteering with the Kidz program while in ninth grade at Tampa Bay Technical High School. Now she's employed in the Moffitt research department and pursuing her master's degree in public health. She's all about paying her opportunities forward.

At the port event, She watched over the students with a smile, thankful for the way the Kidz program changed her life.

"As a middle and high school student, you're always asked what you want to be when you grow up, and a lot of kids don't have an answer yet," she said.

"But Moffitt Healthy Kidz shows all the multi-disciplinary teams that work together to run a successful hospital. At least one of those things will be a great fit."

Contact Libby Baldwin at Follow her @LibBaldwin.