Across the United States there is increasing concern about the dwindling scientific workforce and the lack of students prepared for careers in the sciences. To build future leadership in this arena, we must employ innovative approaches that generate young peoples’ interest and develop their capabilities so that an increased number will pursue and be prepared for careers in scientific fields. Marine ecology is an ideal platform to engage young people in the sciences, develop their skills across multiple disciplines, and prepare them to face the complex challenges that lie ahead. In response, Ocean Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization, has developed Ocean Leaders, a model program to empower young people to become tomorrow’s scientific leaders. Using evaluation data that span the 5 years of the program, we asked how this model can affect participants’ interest and performance in science and how it can contribute directly to the field of marine ecology. Content assessments, surveys, interviews, and tracking data reveal that 73% of Ocean Leader students during this period have declared majors in science and conservation fields, scored higher on standardized science tests relative to their peers, and contributed to ecological research through 10 publications and more than 30 scientific presentations. Using a framework analogous to adaptive management strategies, key components of the program (including in-depth interactions with scientists and rigorous college readiness coursework) have been identified, resulting in an increased number of students who are interested in and ready to pursue science careers. Critical to this model is the partnership between scientists and a non-profit organization. Although this model may not easily be replicated in its entirety, aspects of this collaboration and the strategies employed can help to simultaneously advance the field of marine ecology and scientific leadership and understanding.