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Saving the sharks
Only 9 years old, Paige Epler has been featured on CBS News, given a presentation to the staff of the Baltimore Aquarium, and briefed a congressional hearing committee. Her mission: to save sharks from human predators.
Paige Epler at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Ecology Day on March 12, 2005. She is pulling trash out of a cardboard model of a sand tiger shark, showing the pollution that it ate.
"Did you know that if sharks went extinct, the overpopulated rays would consume almost all the squid, resulting in an overpopulation of zooplankton?" says Paige, who states that she has been homeschooled "since birth." She goes on to say that the overpopulated zooplankton would then consume nearly all the phytoplankton, which provides most of the world's oxygen.
Paige became interested in sharks when she visited the Baltimore Aquarium about two years ago. As she began to study these feared creatures, she learned that they were in danger of extinction due to pollution, finning, fishing nets, and trophy fishing. "I wanted to do something to help save the sharks," says Paige. "I wanted to get the word out and thought teaching people would be a good idea."
Her opportunity came at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Ecology Day on March 12, 2005. As a Girl Scout, Paige accepted the volunteer opportunity to assist exhibitors, but went one step further: she asked the event's organizers if she could present her own exhibit. After receiving permission, she created a display that included a six-foot cardboard model of a sand tiger shark, two charts, a video segment on finning, and a floor maze on shark classification.
A survey of 11,000 attendees revealed that Paige's presentation was in the top 5% of the day's favorite exhibits—including exhibits by NASA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Air and Space Museum's regular exhibits. After that, Paige received endorsements from Wild Aid and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. And calls started flooding in from television stations, museums, aquariums, and small groups requesting that she give her presentation.
This summer, Paige has given her Save the Shark presentation at the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., the Calvert Marine Museum, and twice at the Maryland Science Center as Scientist of the Week.
"People don't know about sharks being endangered," Pam Epler, Paige's mother, says. "Coming from a 9-year-old, it seems like they really tune into what she's saying."
When Paige was born, Pam had been a high school teacher for 15 years. "I started teaching her right away," she remembers. "We really were fascinated that you could teach a baby so much from the very start." Paige began reading at age 1. By the time she reached school age, her parents were concerned that she would be bored attending traditional school. When somebody suggested homeschooling, Pam realized that's what they had been doing all along. "It was so effective that we just decided to keep on doing it," she says. At age 9, Paige is entering 9th grade.
"Now she's pretty much an independent learner," Pam adds. "Once she was able to read very well she was able to find any information she wanted."
Pam and Paige agree that one of homeschooling's greatest advantages is its flexibility. "I can choose which classes I want to study and I get to choose how long it takes me to study them," explains Paige. "Her days are hers," says Pam, pointing out that with Paige's personalized study schedule, she can give her presentation in classrooms during regular school hours. Paige also has time for a variety of other favorite activities, such as karate, playing the violin in a youth orchestra, swimming, and bike riding.
"We're really focused on giving back to the world and the community," says Pam. "I think that those values have come out in Paige." Perhaps that's what stands out most about Paige Epler. Aside from an academic record and busy schedule that would be impressive for any 9-year-old, she has discovered in herself the ability—and the responsibility—to impact the world around her.
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