Society’s success in solving the environmental challenges of the 21st century will depend on our ability to give young people the knowledge, skills and motivation to create effective solutions for the future. At the core of this challenge is a critical need: solving a crisis in science and environmental education. At school, teachers struggle to meet the needs of students from diverse cultures, at a time when there’s a declining focus on science learning. At home, kids spend less time outdoors in nature, meaning fewer opportunities to connect with the wild world in ways that nurture a caring attitude toward the environment.
The Aquarium plays a powerful role in meeting the needs that schools can’t provide – and we’re working to have a larger, more sustained impact through science-based programs tailored to serve kids from preschool through high school, and their teachers. Here’s a deeper dive into some of the ways we’re making a difference, from staff educator Claudia Pineda Tibbs.
When you walk through the doors of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you can’t help but notice the smiles on the faces of students as they rush from one exhibit to the next. The sea spray isn’t the only thing in the air. As you navigate the galleries, you can feel the buzz of excitement as elementary school students squeal in delight after touching obscure invertebrates like the gumboot chiton.
Since 1984, the Aquarium has hosted more than 2.3 million schoolchildren – free of charge – through our School Field Trip Programs, and we’re committed to facilitating a range of learning experiences so students can discover the wonders of Monterey Bay as they make sense of their role in the natural world.
Within and beyond our walls, our dedicated staff educators work to expose middle and high school students to marine-related careers, introduce ocean-friendly choices into their lives, and help them conduct community-based conservation projects.
Watsonville teens in action
For high-school students in the Pajaro Valley of Santa Cruz County, our yearlong Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats program (WATCH) incorporates outdoor education, service learning and project-based coastal ecology. The goal: to inspire students to become ocean conservation leaders in their communities while learning the scientific process and gaining critical thinking and project management skills.
For example, students from Pajaro Valley High School in Watsonville conducted a two-month study at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve with the support of researcher Isabel Jones from Hopkins Marine Station. Guided by their science mentor, students were better able to understand ecological concepts such as carrying capacity and overpopulation. They ultimately recommended creating wildlife corridors around Elkhorn Slough to minimize habitat fragmentation.
As a result of their project, students gained an appreciation and developed a passion for wildlife preservation and habitat conservation. What began as a school experiment led them to a greater understanding of the intricate challenges and rewards of preserving a local ecosystem for the future. It’s one of many field studies students undertake through their participation in the WATCH program. And many are applying what they learned through the program as they pursue opportunities in higher education – and in careers beyond college.
Strengthening science educators’ skills
The Aquarium invests heavily in classroom educators because we believe they are essential and respected partners who can help us fulfill our conservation, education and science missions. Throughout their careers, they can have an impact on tens of thousands of students. Our professional development programs focus on local and global science topics such as climate change science, the biology of kelp forests and plastic pollution. By connecting teachers with scientists and subject-matter experts, we can help them deepen their understanding of the nature of science – so they can, in turn, better support their students as they develop action-based research and conservation projects.
With the guidance of their teacher, who enrolled in our Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit, first-grade students from Watsonville Charter School of the Arts conducted a waste audit on their campus and found an astonishing 205 plastic straw wrappers just in the outdoor eating area at school. More surprising was that straw wrappers represented 53 perecent of the total litter collected that month. Their teacher incorporated curriculum developed by the Aquarium to help the students better understand the effects of plastic pollution within their watershed. By conducting buoyancy experiments and observing how plastic travels through ocean gyres, students were able to communicate these scientific concepts and propose alternatives to single-use plastic to school staff and their fellow students.
After developing outreach materials, the students found a solution to their plastic problem. They sold glass juice bottles that – unlike juice boxes – required no plastic straws. Five months after their initial waste audit, students collected data again. The result? A 70 percent decline in plastic straw wrappers on campus. To this day, students and teachers from Watsonville Charter School of the Arts continue to monitor plastic litter on their campus and make data-driven recommendations to help move toward becoming a zero-waste school.
At a time when school budgets are being slashed and the time devoted to science instruction is limited, the Aquarium is working harder than ever to connect students and teachers to the marine world, immerse them in the scientific process, and help them make sense of their critical role as ocean stewards. Our next big step forward will be our Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, now taking shape a few blocks from the Aquarium. When it’s complete, we’ll be able to serve science-based education programs to more students, teachers and emerging teen leaders than ever.