Xavier at the helm

The Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Education Centre runs several holiday enrichment courses for young natural historians with a particular interest in marine topics. As they progress through the courses and climb the grades, many of the learners express an interest in pursuing a marine-related career. This generally starts off as wanting to be a marine biologist, but further research and guidance makes them aware of the huge variety of careers on offer.

Finding invertebrates in holdfasts

Our courses for junior-school grades provide a general insight into marine environments, leading to our Grade 10 Young Biologist volunteer course, which provides a good combination of experiential learning as well as the opportunity to volunteer at the Aquarium. This leads to two five-day academic courses offered to Grade 11s who intend to study marine sciences at a tertiary level. The first course focuses on aspects of oceanography and the second on zoology. We were overjoyed to hear that the 2015 Exploring Marine Sciences courses were to receive sponsorship from I&J

With several years of experience as a high school biology/life science subject head, I became concerned that the new (CAPS) life science curriculum may provide a broad base in many aspects of the life sciences, but it leaves students wishing to go on to first year tertiary biology with a very poor foundation in pure zoology.

Squids are molluscs ... 

Our Exploring Zoology course seeks to bridge this gap. 

The first day of the course sets out to define life functions, to introduce levels of complexity and body plans in organisms, and to establish an understanding of animal taxonomy. With these broad concepts in place, all the major animal phyla are introduced over the next four days, starting with protista and ending with mammals, paying special attention to marine examples. Aspects covered for each phylum include: definitive features, body plan and external features, nervous coordination and sense organs, temperature regulation, feeding, general locomotion, gaseous exchange and reproduction. In each case the evolutionary process is highlighted to show progression and innovative adaptations in each new phylum.

Sharks, hands-on

The increase in complexity and move to life on land is dealt with as a theme, particularly in the vertebrate classes and it is also noted, especially for each of the land-living vertebrate classes, how some of them have evolved the ability to live in the oceans again from structures clearly meant for life on land.

Performing a fish dissection to view internal adaptations 

The course is unashamedly academic in nature and it is explained, at the onset, that this is in keeping with what will be expected at tertiary level and, in a sense, an introduction to that means of instruction as well. Where pertinent, video material is incorporated and live specimens are provided for the participants to be able to view and, if it is safe to do so, touch. The core material is carefully highlighted so that participants can prepare for a daily assessment in which they are examined on the core material of the day before.

A pre-test is also done, based on the content to be covered, so that the level of prior knowledge can be established. The pre-test result for the course was an average of 26%. The candidates rewrote the test, at the end of the course, and attained an average of 73%, indicating that significant learning had taken place.

Recording the moment: photos to add to notes

A new requirement for this course was to set a comparative essay to be completed and submitted after the course. These serve as an opportunity for the candidates to be able to consider and synthesise all the work covered in the week. For each phylum we tried to have live animals on the tables for the candidates to view and compare. In order to find some extra examples to study, we performed kelp holdfast dissections on the first day. Kelp holdfasts house a range of invertebrates; these were carefully extracted by students working in groups of six and kept in tanks to view later in the week. 

After dealing with a phylum – this refers to the taxonomic rank below kingdom and above class – in a lesson, we would send the students into the Aquarium where, among the animals in our exhibits, they had to identify members of the phyla discussed.

Beyond the sea

Introductory lecture at Iziko

In order to view birds, reptiles and mammals, including marine examples, we arranged an excursion to the Iziko Natural History Museum on the last day of the course. This also enabled further enrichment in that students were also able to view fossil collections and gain insight into how scientists have interpreted the evolutionary process.

Meeting the African T-Rex at Iziko 

As added incentive for them to observe the animals we introduced a photography competition: The candidates were encouraged to take photos of as many of the animals as possible and to submit them to Instagram. Aquarium staff viewed all the photos on the last day and prizes were awarded for the top three photos.

And the winner is ... Benjamin Gazeau

Feedback from the students was unanimous in praise for the enthusiastic presenters, the ability to work with and view live animals in the Aquarium, and to I&J for providing the sponsorship which made this experience possible.

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