Aquarium education: “It changed my life”

11 September 2012 | Ingrid Sinclair and Marin Gorrie

Judy Mann. All photos by Ingrid Sinclair Judy Mann. All photos by Ingrid Sinclair

Education was the focus of the first plenary session of the 8th International Aquarium Congress (IAC) in Cape Town yesterday, 10 September 2012. Following the “Voices for the Future of our Oceans” youth video conference and a heartening welcome from Western Cape Member of the Executive Council (MEC) for Education Donald Grant during the opening ceremony, 8th IAC delegates were ready to be inspired by the future custodians of the oceans.

Keynote: Judy Mann

South African Association of Marine Biology Research (SAAMBR) CEO Judy Mann delivered the keynote address for the Education plenary session. SAAMBR incorporates uShaka Sea World and the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) in Durban.

Mann traced the evolution of aquariums. Early aquarium experiences were characterised by tanks in walls with labels, and guides who talked while visitors listened. “We looked at visitors as strangers,” said Mann. Next, naturalistic dioramas came into play, but signage was text-heavy and “we wanted visitors to read and learn”. Aquariums then started implementing eco-system exhibits (the Two Oceans Aquarium’s Sappi River Meander comes to mind), where emphasis on participation and engagement increased. Then, immersion exhibits and touch screens are came to the fore and aquariums are incorporating strong calls to action to their exhibits.

The present is all about changing behaviour. “We are now asking visitors to think,” said Mann. Aquariums are competing with mainstream media for the hearts and minds of their visitors. They therefore need to do more research on visitors: Who are they? Why are they visiting? What are you they learning and how can we reach them? “We need to view our visitors as clients – how can we meet their needs?”

From aquarium educator to aquarist to CEO, education should be part of the job. And, said Mann, “Education can not just be a green wash, we must show commitment.”

One way of doing this is to embrace new technology to extend the visit beyond the on-site experience.

Youth presenters

Nikki Cathcart Nikki Cathcart

A big highlight – and one surprise – of the day was the two presentations by Two Oceans Aquarium Young Biologists Nikki Cathcart and Nina Lawrenson. Nikki presented the speech, “It’s time to start talking”, which won her the Best Speaker award at the IAC Youth Symposium that took place at the Two Oceans Aquarium on 19 August. Nikki spoke with passion and insight about “a world where children can recognise more corporate logos than plants or animals”, and the need for aquariums to fill this hole in contemporary youth experience.

In a complete surprise move (Nikki had no idea) Professor Frank Shillington stepped up to the podium. He presented Nikki, who is writing her Matric exams as you read this, with a graduate bursary for marine sciences at the University of Cape Town.

Nina Lawrenson was selected from the group of Young Biologists at the “Voices for the Future of our Oceans” youth video conference, which happened at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, the Institut Océanographique (Monaco), Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, USA) and Nausicaá, Centre National de la Mer (France) simultaneously, to present an ocean resolution to IAC delegates. The youth’s plea was insistent: “We [the youth] challenge you to give us blueprints that we can be proud of.”

Nina Lawrenson Nina Lawrenson

The youth conference’s attendees have given the event a life of its own, with Facebook groups being set up by the attendees themselves (no adult intervention occurred) and environmental cleanups being planned on coinciding days.

The message was clear: Young people care, they understand the problems, and they are well equipped to tackle these problems with just a little guidance from the grownups.

Prof Frank Shillington presents Nikki with her bursary Prof Frank Shillington presents Nikki with her bursary

Education presentations attest to an engaged youth community around the world

Yung-Hui Chen (National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium, Taiwan, Republic of China): “Education programmes outside of aquariums: Regional interpreter training programme through collaborations among three organisations”

“Don’t only talk to people inside the aquarium, talk to others outside of the aquarium,” said Yung-Hui Chen. Bringing the public closer to the ocean and breaking boundaries between organisations will help local communities think of the impacts of their actions. And by sharing information and responsibilities, communities can overcome the common dilemma of limited resources.

The National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium (NMMBA) has since 2002 collaborated with PinTung Community College (PTCC) and KenTing National Park (KTNP) to offer a one-year programme to train tourist guides, hotel workers and Hengchun Peninsula locals as interpreters.

The course provides theoretical knowledge and practical skills and equips students with an increased knowledge of marine conservation, which students can then share among others.

Russell Stevens (Two Oceans Aquarium): “What is the most important function of an aquarium?”

Russell Stevens Russell Stevens

“Providing meaningful educational experience is must important function of an aquarium,” said Two Oceans Aquarium Head of Education Russell Stevens.

Some aquariums make token efforts. “It is time to recognise bad aquarium education. This is the time to act to mobilise education efforts,” said Stevens.

He added: “The Two Oceans Aquarium education unit has a team of staff who are passionate about education and about making a difference.”

The unit has carefully devised a strategy to guide its activities with the schools it works with. This includes recruiting former qualified and experienced teachers who understand the curriculum and how to best manage students, developing relationships with various partnering education institutions, and developing programmes based on sound education methodologies.

The Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Education Centre has developed a three-tiered education programme, which focuses on experiential learning activities, including school group excursions and hands-on outreach visits to communities, offering longer and more meaningful courses such as the week-long Young Biologist Course and developing a Marine Science Academy that will allow students to collect course credits year-on-year.

Cynthia Vernon (Monterey Bay Aquarium, California, USA): “Harnessing Teen Power: Effective youth programmes to develop the next generation of ocean conservation leaders”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium recognised the need to harness the potential that the youth of today possesses and to engage with teens aged between 12 and 19 years old. Vernon says it is important to engage with teenagers as they are very concerned about the ocean and are the opinion makers of a society.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium now offers two programmes to nurture young people and teach science standards through ocean-related topics. The outcomes of these programmes have included more confident and inspired teenagers who are more ocean literate and ready to act for the ocean.

Vernon says that at the heart of the teen programmes is the desire to discover what the unique spark in each teen is and how the aquarium can ignite that spark.

Manuel Cira (World Ocean Network): “Voice of Youth programme: Youth Parliaments for the Ocean”

The World Ocean Network is reaching far and wide to help young people voice their ocean concerns.

In 1998, during the Year of the Ocean, and at the concluding presentation of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans report, youths met in Lisbon and signed an Ocean Charter agreement with Unesco. The Youth Ocean Parliament (YOP) was formed.

Through the YOP, young people address featured topics and are able to start lobbying directly for their cause.

Manuel Cira says young people learn a great deal from youth parliament forums and after each session, they leave more knowledgeable. They then share that knowledge with friends and family, which has an impact on society as a whole.

Recommendations that have emerged from youth forums include developing education, supporting research, facing climate change, fostering the sustainable use of ocean resources and promoting better ocean governance.

In addition, suggestions from the YOP include creating links between different groups such as scientists, policymakers and citizens, as well as between inland and coastline projects.

The youth has also suggested the establishment of a global ethics board, which they propose to name the United Oceans.

Phillippe Vallette (Nausicaá & World Ocean Network): Aquariums: main actors towards the Blue Society

A hugely inspiring and thought-provoking presentation that introduced the concept of the Blue Society.

“Every human being on the earth depends on the oceans,” said Nausicaá Director Phillippe Vallette.

The Blue Society is an ambitious vision of society inspired by a spirit of sustainability, well being and equity. The oceans offer tremendous opportunities, including new resources, innovative solutions and positive experiences, which, if coupled with new economic, social and technological approaches, could help us to avert the current global crisis.

The World Ocean Network invites the general public, private sector, decision-makers, scientists and others to think together, build bridges and implement common projects that mobilise society to reflect on our future.

Aquariums, said Vallette, “are uniquely positioned to raise awareness, share ideas and mobilise millions of people.”

Join the conversation

Please follow the 8th IAC on Twitter here – whether you’ll be attending or not. We’ll be using the hashtag #8thIAC on Twitter for IAC coverage, so follow that too. You can also “like” our page on Facebook and please do join our group on LinkedIn here for regular IAC updates, pictures and news.  

  • Author: Ingrid Sinclair and Marin Gorrie
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