Squeaky Sneakers


In 2008, Angela Underwood, Manager of the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) and Nancy Raia, Community Outreach Director of the Eastern Shore Art Center located in Fairhope, AL, collaborated to create a community outreach program known as Squeaky Sneakers. Through involvement in hands-on environmental education and innovative forms of artistic expression, Squeaky Sneakers promotes the conservation of estuaries and other coastal resources. It began as a summer camp directed mostly toward young children but has grown to include participants who range in age from preschool to senior citizens with diverse backgrounds and abilities.

The program coined its name after a seining trip with one of the groups as part of their innovative environmental learning. Seining requires individuals to enter the water, sometimes waist deep, with shoes on. A large net is cast and dragged toward the shore in hopes of capturing some marine creatures to admire and then release safely. After trudging through water with shoes on, a squeaky noise commenced as the participants eagerly gathered around the net to see what creatures they netted – thus, the Squeaky Sneakers moniker.

Underwood describes how the seining activity is followed by catch-of-the-day artwork. Students draw the seine net, the animals they caught, and of course, their sneakers.

Underwood explains how participants are offered a different approach to learning through the integration of multiple subjects. They read books introducing a new topic, such as estuaries. They then partake in a hands-on activity reinforcing the information from the book. The students take what they learn from both the book and the activity and express their new knowledge through art. Participants use multiple forms of media, such as watercolors and acrylic paints to create their artwork.

In 2010, the BP Oil Spill devastated the Gulf Coast. To better educate the students and help them understand the impacts of the oil spill on the natural environment, Underwood and Raia taught participants to use black tar paper and acrylic paints
to develop art pieces highlighting marine life. Students also used materials such as preserved fish specimens from the Weeks Bay NERR to create fish prints. They painted on the fish, pressed paper over the top, and removed the paper to reveal a lifelike, fish print.

Squeaky Sneakers has been introduced into the classroom at local schools as well. At Fairhope High School, Squeaky Sneakers worked with students from a Consumer Sciences and Fashion Design class. “The students created beautiful fabrics using the Easy Batik lesson,” Underwood recalled. Batik is the art of using some type of resistant (such as wax) on a fabric, painting the fabric, and then removing the resistant to leave behind a beautiful design. “The students used toothpaste or hand lotion [as the resistant] on the cloth or canvas, and then washed it off after the paint dried,” she described. “They even made fabrics with designs based on estuaries, which they used to create clothing – the clothing was put on exhibit at the Eastern Shore Art Center.”

The program has encouraged participants of all ages and abilities to immerse themselves in science through art, and ultimately develop an appreciation and become stewards of the coastal environment.

To learn more about Squeaky Sneakers, contact Nancy Raia at nancy@esartcenter.org or Angela Underwood at Angela.Underwood @dcnr.alabama.gov. Virtual Squeaky Sneakers lessons can be found on the Weeks Bay Reserve YouTube page.

The Weeks Bay NERR was established in 1986 and is managed by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System. The mission of the Weeks Bay NERR is to “provide leadership to promote informed management of estuarine and coastal habitats through scientific understanding and encourage good stewardship practices through partnerships, public education, and outreach programs.”