Katy Scott, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s digital learning manager, sits in a small office just across Cannery Row from the Aquarium. The cramped space looks like a school classroom crossed with a NASA operations center. There are a dozen pairs of virtual reality goggles lying about, and 10 padded cases containing 18 iPads each. A snaking nest of charge cords comes out of the wall, attached to a host of other devices. Laptops whir and burst with color and animation.
It’s a pretty geeky place.
There’s hardly room for a desk, but that’s okay—Katy’s not there much, anyway. She’s in the field, working with teachers and students, holding forth on the value of technology in science education and how it can be used to promote the Aquarium’s mission of inspiring conservation of the ocean.
The Aquarium’s digital learning initiatives reach hundreds of schools, teachers and more than 80,000 students every year, from the Bay Area to the Central Valley. In fact, Katy emphasizes that there is no separate “digital learning program” per se. Quite simply, it’s an approach that permeates everything the Aquarium does in the field of education.
And, with next year’s opening of the Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, it will play an increasingly important role complementing the inspirational power of the Aquarium’s live-animal experiences.
“I can’t fix your computer—but I can show you how to use it better”
Katy readily acknowledges that she doesn’t bring a formal computer or engineering background to her work. (She majored in journalism and in education.) But while working as a public school teacher she showed a propensity for tech.
“So the principal said, ‘Hey, you’re good at this—why don’t you teach everyone else?’” says Katy. A career was born.
In 2009, she joined the Aquarium as an education technology specialist, and soon after became the first digital learning manager. It’s now a department of three. Katy holds monthly meetings with representatives from 10 education programs to ensure the Aquarium is on the cusp of tech trends.
But it’s not all about cool stuff.
“A lot of people confuse what I do with IT,” says Katy. “I can’t fix your computer, but I can teach you how to use it better. The Aquarium’s mission is to inspire conservation of the ocean, and we can’t solve those problems through individual action alone. We need to be able to scale. And one way we do that is through engineering and technology. It enables us to broaden our impact.”
Marrying technology with live-animal learning experiences serves another priority that’s high on the Aquarium’s list, Katy says. One goal is to get students “future-ready,” helping them build the skills they’ll need to succeed in the creative economy.
A technological tour de force
Katy has me put on a pair of enormous and very nerdy looking goggles. Inside, there’s a world of wonder. Suddenly I’m in the bay, beneath the waves, and there’s a shark cruising past. But this is no ordinary shark; just as quickly, I have x-ray vision and can see inside the shark and view its organs. When I spin my head around, I see other fishes, and tall strands of kelp. I’m cruising the depths like a diver, though in truth I’ve never left my chair.
Meanwhile, Katy’s seeing the same thing on her computer screen, tracking a small cursor that captures my every movement. We’re having a shared experience. It’s a little creepy, but mostly cool. Next, she asks me to grasp an innocuous looking paper cube in the palm of my hand. By manipulating the cube, I’m also manipulating the shark, turning it over or bringing it closer for a better look.
I put down the goggles and Katy shifts gears to demonstrate another tech tool the Aquarium is using. She shows me a one-minute video clip—created by a second grader—that describes the common traits of a sea anemone, an octopus and an abalone. Called a “screencast,” the project uses a free app that converts simple stick figures into an engaging, narrated video.
“It helps teachers understand what the kids are thinking,” says Katy. “And the kids have something they can take home to show mom or dad.”
The list of projects grows and changes with Silicon Valley speed. Here are a few more examples:
Social media: Teen Conservation Leaders have created social media accounts, under the Aquarium’s brand, that focus on ocean conservation. Students act as social media managers, develop an editorial calendar, generate content and post regularly to Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat. They also create and post engaging memes with ocean conservation messaging.
Data collection: Mobile phones have supercharged the time-honored beach cleanup and turned it into a research project. By using a free app like “Clean Swell,” from the Ocean Conservancy, students can log the time, location and type of trash they find with the push of a few buttons. By analyzing the data, they can develop an action plan that might suggest, for instance, adding recycling sites on holiday weekends in specific locations. Or they might synthesize data that show the efficacy of legislation restricting single-use plastics.
Coding: Students can use computer programming to create a virtual community of sheephead fish. They can manipulate the simulation to show varying numbers of males vs. females in the population, and explore what happens when sea urchins predominate, or the kelp forest begins to die off. “They’re examining the effects of fishing and climate change, and what that does to ecosystems,” says Katy. In doing so, they’re not just acting on behalf of ocean conservation, they’re also building a very concrete skill set—computer programming—that’s in steep demand in tech-heavy Silicon Valley, and the emerging national economy.
Maker education: One new pilot program, for eighth and ninth graders, involves using technology to design and build physical objects. “This is for students with an interest in engineering,” says Katy. “We don’t know what they’ll create, but we’re here to support them with tools.”
More than just cool stuff
Skeptics might wonder: Is this just kids playing with devices? Or is it rigorous, scientific education? The answer is both, says Katy. Education technology projects help students build important communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills. While some activities prompt students to create videos featuring crayon drawings, others require students to learn programming and make computer simulations. For most of us, there’s enough rigor to make our eyes glaze over.
You might think that all these hardware-intensive initiatives would only benefit well-heeled schools and students. That’s another misconception, says Katy. A major part of the Aquarium’s digital learning program involves putting technology in the hands of students from underserved communities. Teachers who attend the Aquarium’s professional development institutes can reserve class sets of iPads to use in their classrooms.
“When I started, teachers would tell me they’re not teaching technology because they didn’t have the hardware,” says Katy. But when teachers show their principals how students are benefitting from the Aquarium’s devices and educational tools, they often receive funding to buy their own.
“One great thing about the Aquarium is that all our education programs are offered free of charge. We’re always trying to reduce barriers.”
Running out of room
Looking around Katy’s “technology closet”, it’s pretty clear that the program is busting out of its current space.
That all will change when the Aquarium’s new Center for Ocean Education and Leadership opens. Katy was part of the design committee for the new space, which will include a video lab and sophisticated software that allows educators to interact with students using iPads in real time. Several 200-gallon aquariums will include scaffold-like devices that allow students to use a smartphone to make high-quality videos of animal behavior. Students will also be able to access and analyze data from a new, rooftop weather station.
To be sure, all these cool pieces of technology make it more likely that the Aquarium will capture—and hold—the attention of today’s students. But, says Katy, it’s so much more than that.
“Our goal is that students leave the classroom loving the ocean. We’re also teaching them how to amplify their voices through technology. And that’s a powerful combination.”
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