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Chip Cunliffe


Biodiversity Director at AXA XL

Like many people, I’ve recently been captivated by Greta Thunberg’s quiet activism and fierce determination. Her clarion call about the urgent need for sweeping actions to limit global warming has, in a remarkably short period, captured worldwide attention from regular citizens to heads-of-state.

For me, one of the most striking – and encouraging – aspects of her activism and the global response to it, is the torrent of energy and passion it has unleashed among her peers. Today, we are hearing from a cohort of voices not often heard, and they are reminding us how they will become the eventual stewards of our planet. And that it is long past time we all start heeding the warnings about the climate emergency and their future.

Promoting ocean literacy

One pushback sometimes expressed about these youth activists is “what do they know, they’re just kids”. I think that dismissal is misplaced. While primary and secondary school students don’t have the same level of expertise as leading climate scientists who’ve been studying these topics for the last 30 years, many young people today are very well-informed about our climate system. They understand that changes in the atmosphere are affecting ocean temperatures, acidity levels and circulation patterns; and that these developments, in turn, are impacting vital oceanic ecosystems, including the polar ice caps and tropical coral reefs.

They care. And they’re clamouring to know even more.

I’m aware of this due to my involvement in AXA’s partnership with Encounter Edu, an innovative organization that “designs and delivers STEM and global learning programmes transforming education inside and outside the classroom”. Unlike the dry lesson plans and textbook-based education force-fed to my generation, Encounter Edu “specialise(s) in producing live lessons on global topics for the classroom … designed to engage and inspire and giving students the necessary understanding and skills to tackle the world's most pressing issues”.

Working with Encounter Edu, in 2012 we created what is now called the AXA Ocean Education programme. The programme’s learning modules draw on the legacy of ocean science research that AXA XL, and its predecessor companies, have supported since the 1990s. While this research was undertaken to deepen our knowledge about poorly understood aspects of the Earth’s ocean, from the outset we also recognized the potential for sharing these experiences and information to engage and inform young people.

Ocean Education is a significant component of AXA’s Ocean Risk Initiative. One of its overarching objectives is to enhance ocean literacy at all ages and in all sectors so that current and future leaders will more readily and confidently incorporate sustainability and the “ocean perspective” into business decisions and public policy debates.

The Initiative also sponsors PhD research through AXA XL’s Ocean Risk Scholarship programme. By expanding scientific research on the ocean and its connection to risk, the programme aims to expand ocean literacy in the insurance sector by strengthening the bridge between research and the industry’s understanding of ocean risk.

To drive ocean literacy among children and young people, Ocean Education’s science- and geography-themed lessons expose students aged 7-16 to the vital role the ocean plays in our lives and the threats they face. The programme focuses on building foundational knowledge and fostering an intellectual and emotional connection to the ocean and its many ecosystems, something which students hopefully will carry into their lives and careers.

Generating greater interest and curiosity

Encounter Edu has succeeded in making our programme highly engaging and interactive. With its lesson plans, activity sheets, videos, picture galleries and 360-degree virtual reality (360VR) content, students can experience different oceanic regions, as well as the technologies used to conduct this research, in a way that is truly “up close and personal”. With 360VR, for example, students can go online to follow a Nekton Mission expedition as it explores the waters off Bermuda with submersibles, deep-dive teams and diverse scientific equipment. The 360VR experience enables students to “visit” these varied environments and “watch” the researchers exploring them, all with an immediacy and realism that naturally captures their attention and sparks even greater interest and curiosity.

With AXA XL’s support, Encounter Edu has also pioneered the use of live video links that enable students to interact directly with explorers and scientists. In 2019, our Live events included:

  • Coral Live, hosted at the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI) research station, which exposed students to such topics as coral ecosystems, the deep reef, and the impacts of climate change
  • Arctic Live, hosted at the UK Arctic Research Station in Ny-Alesund, Norway (the world’s northernmost settlement), which focused on research documenting how polar regions are changing as well as on studies about ocean acidification and the proliferation of microplastics
  • Submarine Live, which joined the Nekton First Descent Team in its submersible as they investigated the uncharted depths of the Indian Ocean around the Seychelles archipelago.

Each event ran over five days and comprised 20-25 broadcasts that included live expert interviews as well as “ask-me-anything” sessions. Augmented by the other Ocean Education resources, videos and VR360 modules, these events created an engrossing and integrated approach to learning. More than 122,000 students in 36 countries took part in 2020.

In 2020, Arctic Live will return for the seventh time (4-15 May) as will the sixth edition of Coral Live (9-20 November). Videos from past events can also be viewed on Encounter Edu’s website (see the link below).

An exciting, well-organised resource

The quality of Encounter Edu’s materials and the professionalism of its team have not gone unnoticed. Encounter Edu was recently recognised as a leader in education technology at the Bett Awards 2020, where it won an award based on our work together on AXA Arctic and Coral Live. Bett is the world’s leading showcase of education technology solutions, and the awards presented at its showcase event in London celebrate “the inspiring creativity and innovation that can be found throughout technology for education”.

The Bett judges lauded Encounter Edu for its work in creating “an exciting, well-organised open resource, which enables students to explore the world from the classroom and focuses on the current dilemmas facing the natural world and its resources”.

After winning the award, Encounter Edu director Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop commented: “This is very much a shared award with AXA. Over the course of our now nine-year partnership, we have been able to push the boundaries of education technology innovation through the use of live-streaming from remote expeditions and inspiring students with stunning virtual reality experiences.”

Creating a greater understanding of and appreciation for these wonderful environments – in other words, becoming more ocean literate – is essential if we are to develop the political will needed to safeguard threatened ecosystems and promote greater resilience, both in policy and business decisions. And as the recent accolades demonstrate, Encounter Edu’s contributions to our Ocean Education programme, including its interactive learning modules, are highly effective in educating students about the ocean and the interconnections between varied elements of the natural world. I applaud Encounter Edu’s work in helping educate children about threats to the environment and therefore add to the mass of voices (like Greta Thunberg’s) calling for action to sustain their future.

Some key facts about the AXA Ocean Education programme:

  • In 2020, the programme has reached 8.5 million students in more than 96 countries.
  • In 2020, more than 122,000 students in 36 countries attended one of the Live Lesson broadcasts (AXA Arctic Live, Coral Live, and Submarine Live).
  • To date, the programme has produced 85 lessons across 12 units of work, comprising 454 lesson plans, student sheets, slideshows, activity overviews and more, making AXA Ocean Education one of the largest collections of ocean-related teaching materials globally.
  • In total, its teaching resources have recorded more than 200,000 downloads.

More information about Encounter Edu’s programmes and activities can be found here.

About the author: Chip Cunliffe is AXA XL’s Director of Sustainable Development. Chip established and manages AXA XL’s Ocean Risk Initiative which works to identify innovative insurance and finance solutions to the impacts and implications of ocean-related risk. In 2012, he launched AXA’s Ocean Education programme. He is based in London and can be reached at

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