In June this year, Two Oceans Aquarium Deputy Head of Education Bianca Engel travelled to Orlando, Florida to attend the National Marine Educators Association’s 2016 Annual Conference. She went to share the work of our Environmental Education Centre, and to learn from ocean education facilities around the world. We sat down with Bianca to chat about her experiences in the USA.
Tell us about the National Marine Educators Association (NMEA) conference!
My overall impression of the NMEA conference was: wow. Coordinating a conference for more than 500 attendees from different parts of the USA and the world, as well as speakers and exhibition space, is no easy task! The plenary presenters, session presenters and poster presentations were all of a high calibre.
Above: Bianca Engel (third from the left) was part of an international panel discussing ocean literacy
What is the value of going to an international conference?
As an educator it’s valuable to see what other organisations are doing, and to see that we, coming from a South African context, are dealing with the same issues and the same topics, and that we’re doing it in a fantastic way. We don’t need to step back and think that we are inadequate in any way.
Is there anything the Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Education Centre is particularly strong on?
I think we are on par in terms of our hands-on, experiential components. We balance the theory with practical ways of applying the theory. For example, in our environmental education lessons we let our students touch animals like anemones, starfish and urchins. Many of these students may not have touched an anemone before, or, if they have touched one, they hadn’t really considered that it’s a live animal.
Giving them this understanding is very important - that we need to respect and cherish these animals that we have on display, and at the same time to see the value of those animals within the whole ecosystem. When we plan our lessons and courses, we’re looking at what content we’d like to deal with, how it links to the curriculum, and at the same time how we can unpack the concept to make it easy for any person coming into our organisation to understand.
What inspired you about the conference?
Attending the NMEA conference was great for professional development and stimulating ideas for teaching, but also for professional connections, as most of the presenters and participants were ready to share ideas and their scientific data. As great as this was, it was USA-biased and I wish we could have ready access to real time ocean data along our coast! What I really found of value is that much of the American scientific research is available online, worldwide. I would like to be able to put the same concepts across but using research that is done here in South Africa.
How does that become a reality?
More and more, scientists are becoming aware that it is important for them to communicate directly with Joe Public, and so they’re making their research more readily available by writing more popular articles and so on. What would be really great is if we could access some of the raw data produced locally and use that for our Marine Science Academy courses.
How were environmental issues covered at the conference?
Climate change and ocean acidification were well represented at the conference. We looked at how these two environmental issues impact on coral reefs and organisms that build shells.
In one workshop we looked at how environmental education institutions can get the message about climage change across more effectively. As opposed to just getting people to perform individual actions, we rather want to encourage them to be part of community actions, so to increase the effect of their impact. To get people to see the value of what impact being part of a community-driven programme would have. We need to encourage not just ourselves, but the broader community.
What are some of the highlights of the sessions you attended?
Choosing which sessions to attend was difficult as there were several that I would have liked to attend. Here are the highlights:
- Coral bleaching and the nature of science in the classroom: lots of useful and practical ideas for teaching concepts online.
- Aligning the ocean literacy framework to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): Useful, as it gave me an idea of how the American environmental educators looked at the curriculum.
- How to teach your students about ocean information and get them excited about it: For example, by using ocean climate tools and data.
- Bringing authentic marine science research activities to summer camp: I was introduced to Biocube, a citizen science project to sample biodiversity in an ecosystem.
- Teens in the field: Linking with industry, graduate research projects or marine science organisations to give teenagers an authentic experience.
- Project-based learning in marine science: We learnt about how project-based learning is used to teach big concepts, how it’s student-driven and how it gives students an authentic experience.
- The Coral Reef Education portal: An introduction to the Coral Reef Ecology Curriculum.
- Using drifters and mini-boats as economical research platforms: I attended this session as one of the presenters is interested in launching a boat off either Cape Point or Cape Agulhas. A typical boat would cost US$2 000 and could be fitted with a number of scientific instrumentats, depending on what the school or organisation wants to track.
- Using telepresence and new learning platforms for engagement in ocean exploration: Exploring ideas around how to link up with NOAA’s Ocean Explorer. As great as it is to watch live presentations, it’s not necessarily feasible in terms of time differences or the theory you’d want to cover in a session. I do however like their short videos, summarising different concepts or things seen with the submersible.
You also spent some time at other aquariums and environmental education facilities while you were in the USA?
Yes! My visit coincided with the USA’s summer holidays so I was not able to see any education programmes in action at the aquariums I went to. My focus was thus to meet with as many education staff as possible to discuss their education programmes, volunteer programmes and training, and visitor interpretation exhibits.
New England Aquarium, Boston
The New England Aquarium’s education strategy is to engage audiences outside of the aquarium’s exhibit area. Through education, they aim to help create an ethic of ocean stewardship by inspiring, informing, mobilising, empowering and activating audiences in a social context through multiple experiences.
I was able to participate in a few visitor interpretations. These included the aquarium’s climate change experiences. They use an interactive game to get children to think about the sources of carbon, both natural and human-made. This generated good discussions about what the source of the problem is and what we can do to change the amount of carbon dioxide being produced. Their octopus camouflage game is a great way of introducing the concept of camouflage and how it helps animals to survive. There were live jellies in a small container and a sample of trawl with plastics in it. Live animals or dried specimens draw visitors to a table, which results in a more meaningful interaction about jelly biology and impacts of plastic in the environment.
New Bedford Whaling Museum
The New Bedford Whaling Museum exhibits the rich whaling and art history of the town itself. Volunteers come in once a week to run their education programme. Learners are divided into groups and guided by the volunteers to various hands-on education stations, including one where learners can use a blubber glove and a bucket of ice to learn how blubber protects the animal in cold environments! They use a basin of water, household cooking spices and a hair comb to illustrate how baleen plates work.
Everyone here at the Two Oceans Aquarium’s Environmental Education Centre has been very interested in the Project Oceanology field work with summer camp students in Connecticut. I was thus very excited to visit their facility and meet with the staff. At the time of my visit they were preparing for the start of the summer camps, and were training interns to run fieldwork exercises with groups.
These exercises included sandy shore activities like setting a transect line from water mark to shore, and then observing and analysing plant cover and measuring height above sea level. They also inspected grains of sand to determine size and composition. Another group looked at the vertical change in composition of sand and size of grains by digging into the sand. I observed seine trek netting, too. All animals found were placed into buckets, identified, measured and released. Groups also went to a marsh (similar to our wetlands), where they discussed the importance of marshlands and looked at plants and animals.
Students are with them for two weeks during summer camp, which gives them enough time to identify an hypothesis and test it by collecting data and writing up a report. These activities inspired me to do more fieldwork as part of my course offerings to students.
At SeaWorld Orlando, because it was the long summer break, most of the education staff and some volunteers were positioned at various exhibits to help visitors with interpretation rather than present focused lessons. They do have two great classrooms with beautiful murals, and in one of the classrooms they have a touch pool with live invertebrates. They have great exhibits that combine rides, technology and animation, and real environmental conditions, e.g. the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin exhibit and TurtleTrek. The signage throughout the park was also very educational and interactive.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
The visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom included meetings with several of the education staff. I was able to observe some of the Backstage Tales tour for guests, which included a presentation by one of the scientists who spoke about Disney’s conservation fund. I visited the area where they breed insects for interactions and exhibits, and the warehouse that stores the food for the animals in the park; there was lots of information regarding what each animal eats and how much they need. Very impressive!
Then I learnt about the Wilderness Explorers programme (WE), through which visitors complete challenges and earn adventure badges as they work their way around the park. This is what they refer to as “stealth education” – while visitors are enjoying the park, the WE “cast members” initiate conversations with guests using Wilderness Explorers badges. The guests are then encouraged to answer a question before receiving their next badge. Education staff are placed at all the walking trails: these are frontline cast members who have a particular interest in an animal or the environment.
I found the staff at Disney very friendly, not distracted by personal conversations and ready to assist even before you approach them.
All in all it was a wonderful opportunity and I returned to the Two Oceans Aquarium full of ideas and also proud to be part of what we achieve here through our environmental education programmes and exhibits.
If you would like to learn more about the environmental education taking place here at the Two Oceans Aquarium, please click here.