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Farewell to Russell Stevens

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Farewell to Russell Stevens

Russell joined the Two Oceans Aquarium in 2000 as Head of Education. In his early days at the Aquarium he said “Where in the world is there a better place for perceptions of the sea to come alive?”

At the onset of his Aquarium career, Russell’s vision for education included interacting and networking with teachers and environmental education bodies around the sub-continent; teacher training; developing marine education material and hand-on experiences for children; increasing sponsored tours to the Aquarium for disadvantaged children; outreach programmes and developing the Aquarium into a leading environmental education facility.

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During his time at the Aquarium, Russell established and led a formidable Education Department. This team is responsible for the presentation of lessons to visiting school groups, ranging from pre-school right through to tertiary student groups. In addition to daily presentations on site, there are three mobile outreach programmes, one of which takes animals and lessons to previously disadvantaged communities. Under Russell’s leadership, it became possible to make use of suitable live animals for use in interactive hands-on lessons (kept in dedicated holding facilities in the classrooms). He has also engineered the introduction of enrichment courses, such as the Junior and Young Biologist courses, running over weekends and during school holidays. Russell was also in regular communication with Education dept officials and served on the board of the school Governing Body association to ensure that our programmes are seen as valuable and remain accessible to all target groups.

However, his most significant achievement was the launch of Marine Sciences as a national FET subject. It was Russell’s dream to include Marine Sciences in the school curriculum and through sheer determination, endless perseverance, relationship building with key government representatives, and many, many hours of work, this dream became a reality as the first Grade 10s wrote their Marine Sciences exam at the end of 2019. These same students completed their Matric in 2021. Today close to 1000 learners are studying Marine Sciences across the three grades.

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Together with Xavier Zylstra, also of the Education Department, Russell wrote all the content for three years of marine sciences study! 

When Xavier nominated Russell for the SANCOR Marine And Coastal Communicator Award (Professional Category) in 2022, he wrote the following:

My primary reason for nominating Russell for this award, is his incredible passion, foresight and determination which culminated in Marine Sciences being considered and finally accepted as a National FET subject in South Africa, launching at six Western Cape schools in 2020 and destined to be rolled out at many more once it has established itself.

As an ex-high school teacher, my initial reaction to Russell’s proposal in 2015 was that this was a massive dream that could never be realized. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) had just been through a process of streamlining the lesson options available to schools- surely they would not entertain a brand new subject! It is testimony to Russell’s leadership style, that he got me to grudgingly accept that this was an exercise worthy of doing, even if we only ended up using the material within our own Education Centre... And so, the process began”.

Farewell to Russell Stevens

At the time of Marine Sciences being officially gazetted in the Government Gazette, Russell commented:

“This is a new moment for us at the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation, and one of the most exciting moments for marine education in South Africa. It is a first for us, and a first for Africa.”

In 2022 Russell was the recipient of the SANCOR Marine and Coastal Communicator Award (Professional Category) which he received in “ In recognition of outstanding contributions towards communication of information about the marine and coastal environment to the public. This award serves as an acknowledgement of, and a symbol of appreciation for, the dedication, enthusiasm and diligence of the persons performing such communication.” Russell was most deserving of this award after all his work in environmental education.

Russell attended and presented at numerous conferences, both locally and internationally. He was Chair and Vice Chair of numerous bodies including the School Governing Body association, the All Atlantic Ocean Research Ocean Literacy committee, the Cape Town Centre for Environmental Education, the Fairest Cape Association, the MCEN (Marine and Coastal Educators Network) committee, ed4PAZAAB (Pan African Zoo and Aquarium Organisation; Education wing) and a Board member of the Asian Marine Educators Association and the Soetwater Environmental Education Centre.

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He was always prepared to network extensively and get involved in the moulding and management of various vital organisations. Russell was seldom satisfied to sit back and observe passively. His approach was always to engage, reflect and then get involved in perfecting, and his very real influence was notable in all organisations that he was involved with.

Russell has not only played an instrumental role in marine education, but he has also left an indelible mark on some of his colleagues and students.

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A few words from Russell's friends and former colleagues:

“Russell was instrumental in enabling me to move from a phase of my education career which was desperately unhappy to an environment and teaching role in which I was truly happy and fulfilled. There is no question that he was intent on creating an Environmental Education facility which could proudly and justifiably carry that description. He constantly pushed the boundaries of all his staff, but in a nurturing way, enabling us to grow naturally, rather than being forced to grow against our wishes or requirements. Russell constantly challenged us with new ideas and goals. We saw many of these as unattainable, but Russell’s enthusiasm and ability to draw out the best from all of us (and a host of conscripted volunteers) brought almost all of his dreams to fruition. The writing of the Marine Sciences Curriculum and the supporting material, followed by its acceptance as a South African FET subject is surely Russell’s most significant achievement. I am proud to have been part of the team making that dream a reality.” Xavier Zylstra, past Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation Teacher

”I met Russell about 14 years ago, when I did my adult volunteer course at the Two Oceans Aquarium. A few years later I was fortunate (after four long interviews) to be employed by Russell, and became part of an amazing team and organisation, which has developed and continues to mould me personally and professionally. Russell taught me many things but most of all I learned to be accountable, to set only the highest standards in everything I set out to do, and lastly, to make time to reflect... Russell, your dedication, guidance, and mentorship have been invaluable to me and countless others on our team.Thank you once again for your years of service, and dedication to our education program. May this new chapter be filled with joy, relaxation, and fulfilment as you pursue your passions and dreams outside the workplace. You have truly made a difference in our lives, and we are incredibly grateful for the privilege of having worked alongside you. Your presence will be greatly missed, but your legacy will continue to shape the future of marine education for years to come.” Chanelle Thomas, Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation Teacher

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“I was about 12, in Bergvliet Primary School, which must have been standard 4, Russell Stevens [now the Two Oceans Aquarium Head of Education] was one of my teachers. Russell presented my class with a project, he said: “Give us a small report on your favourite species of fish. I chose the Cape kurper, and because my project was quite a good one, I was rewarded with the chance to be one of 10 classmates to volunteer at the holding tanks at the Two Oceans Aquarium, where they kept the fish before moving them onto display. Without the influence of Russell Stevens I would have never gotten involved in the Aquarium and met all those amazing people” – Steve Benjamin, Animal Ocean

“ have always admired Russell for his passion and dedication to education. He goes the extra mile, even if it makes a difference in the life of one child. The contribution he has made for the advancement of ocean literacy and marine environmental education in South Africa is invaluable. All the best for your retirement Russell!” Katja Laingui, ex staff member

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I have worked alongside Russell since 2000. I have never met a more passionate educator than Russell. His driving force has been to “change the nation” through education and he has inspired so many people to join him on this mission including those he works with at the Aquarium as well as people beyond the boundaries of the Aquarium. Russell has mentored and transformed staff and students alike – his support of and work with them has been life-changing, and in turn they have been able to effect change in their communities.

One example of Russell’s mentorship was the late Khonzani Lembeni TedX Seapoint presentation in 2012. Russell took Khonzani, a trained magician, under his wing and taught him, inspired him, and gave him the confidence to teach marine education to hundreds of school children. Khonzani initiated a wetlands programme in Khayelitsha which was continued by his colleagues after he passed away tragically in 2014”. Helen Lockhart, Conservation & Sustainability Manager

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“Russell was the first person that really instilled the importance of our work and the Aquarium’s existence. In my interview he said “We are busy changing the future because if we don’t there will be nothing left of our oceans.” His passion for educating the nation and his love for the Aquarium is unmatched. He also used to say that we have one opportunity to engage with a school child and that child might be the future Nelson Mandela.” – Alichia Nortje, Guest Experiences Manager

“I first met Russell in 2001 as a student on the very first Young Biologist course and many years later was reacquainted when I was employed as an outreach teacher at the Aquarium in 2015. Russell has always been somewhat of a visionary who saw potential in his staff and pushed the boundaries of the educational programmes on offer. It is through his vision that the Aquarium hosts a world class on-site education centre at the forefront of ocean literacy in South Africa. Boasting a range of education programmes from ECD to FET phase, outreach programmes and recently a marine sciences curriculum subject, Russell would always see the end goal and knew that, with his support staff and resourcefulness, it was achievable. I am grateful for being a part of his vision and having the opportunity to support and learn from him in his tenure as the Head of the Aquarium’s Education Department. I wish him well with his retirement; he has left a legacy in being pivotal in the formation of the national marine sciences curriculum subject.” Anzio Abels, Outreach Teacher

“Your unwavering dedication to “educate the nation” and your tenacity in achieving what you have embarked on, is what enabled Marine Science to be added as a Matric subject, thus elevating the role of the oceans in the senior school phase. A remarkable achievement and a true legacy that I hope you are immensely proud of, as I am of the role that the Aquarium played in making it a reality.” – Michael Farquhar, Two Oceans Aquarium CEO

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Throughout his career Russell has been utterly committed to education and to the ocean. He has created a legacy which will change the lives of many - not only those of humans, but those of non-humans with whom we share this planet.

Thank you, Russell.

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