Remembering Sarah Tilman

The success of the NEMO program relies on the passion and hard work of teachers in the D.C. public school system (DCPS). Sarah Tilman was a biology teacher at Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. who helped start the NEMO program. Sadly, Sarah passed away in February 2009 at the age of 27 just two weeks before her students were to compete in the 2009 Chesapeake Bay Bowl, a regional qualifying competition for the National Ocean Sciences Bowl.

Sarah’s contagious enthusiasm for science helped bring together a small group of students at Wilson High School who were interested in marine science. After a year of dedicated training, five of her students went on to become the first team to represent Wilson at the 2008 Chesapeake Bay Bowl and one of three teams to represent DCPS for the first time. Sarah’s commitment to ocean literacy helped grow the NEMO program at Wilson, and by February 2009 two more Wilson teams were gearing up to compete in the Chesapeake Bay Bowl.  But less than two weeks before the competition, the devastating news came that Sarah had passed away.

The students had a difficult decision to make. Would they continue on or sit the year out? One of the team’s captains captured the students’ spirits. “They would continue on”, he said, “they had trained too hard, and it was what she (Sarah) would have wanted.” On February 21, 2009, two Wilson teams went on to compete. They proudly represented their school, and most of all their teacher and leader, Sarah Tilman. And in one round of competition, a Wilson team defeated the nation’s top-ranked school.

Sarah’s lessons extended far beyond the classroom–she taught her students about character, and how to continue on in the face of adversity with strength, class, and resilience–lessons that have stayed with them as they went on to compete in subsequent Bowls, graduate high school, and even college. The Chesapeake Bay Bowl went on to honor Sarah’s memory and contributions to the Bowl by naming the annual sportsmanship award (“The Tilman Sportsmanship Award”) in her honor. NOAA remembers Sarah, her contributions to NEMO, ocean science, and most of all her students.