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Birch Aquarium Makes STEM Approachable for Students

Inspired by the success of its Virtual Summer Learning Adventure Camps, which served 1,361 students, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has launched a couple of new online education offerings catering to both teachers and parents.

The hope, said Megan Malaska Medley, director of education, is that the new courses will expand the organization’s reach while encouraging young learners to pursue a path in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“We recognize and understand that students, teachers and families are dealing with a lot right now,” Medley said. “We also recognize the potential of lost learning when it comes to science and STEM. In recognizing that, we decided we wanted to pivot and fill the gap.”

STEM education is important because it helps students understand how to solve problems and better handle everyday challenges, Medley said.

Birch Aquarium’s virtual programs are rooted in science through observation, which leads to interest and understanding, she added.

“Often, students feel like science can be daunting,” said Medley, “so by starting off with observation, sparking curiosity through questions and seeing problems through, we can help encourage young learners that anyone can pursue a path in STEM if they’re interested.”

Tomorrow’s workforce is expected to need a good background in STEM.

Virtual Studios

Led by aquarium instructors, Virtual Youth and School Group Programs will be available to schools, homeschool groups, after school programs and scout collectives. The Virtual After School Series, a six-week bundle, is meant to be booked by caregivers as a supplemental, after school learning option for kindergarteners through eighth graders.

From ideation to execution, it took about a month to get the programs up and running, said Medley. She said the aquarium converted three of its existing classrooms into virtual studios, equipped with new lighting, cameras on gimbals and animals on deck, among other arrangements.

Programs begin with a welcome and introduction, as well as a walk-through on how to use the platform. All of the sessions include an animal component, said Medley, as well as camera vision to the larger exhibits at the aquarium. She said the students will drive the conversations through inquiry, to make sure all engagements are interactive. Some of the classes include “Ask a Naturalist: Aquarium 101,” “Colossal Kelp” and “Fascinating Fish.”

The after school program will work similarly, except it will also include a craft and a movement activity, said Medley.

All will be taught by two ocean operators, one who is dynamic as the lead and the other who watches the screen, monitors the mute button and takes care of other logistical aspects. The two instructors will play off of each other, she said, to figure out together what is the best way to keep the students engaged.

Student Engagement

“We did a lot of learning through the summer program, not only on how to manage and teach on a virtual program, but how to assess student engagement, so we can see how many are interacting. That was honestly the biggest shift beyond the technical piece,” said Medley. “How do we assess the effectiveness in a group setting? How do we set ourselves for success? It takes a village to get this accomplished and being thoughtful about what exactly is that sweet spot.”

The Virtual Youth and School Group Programs are $100 per 30 minutes and $125 per 45 minutes per group of up to 36 students. The after-school programs will be $135 for members and $150 for nonmembers per six-session bundle.

Reopening

The virtual activations launched just days before Birch Aquarium reopens to the public, on Sept. 15. Safety protocols include requiring face coverings, the creation of one-way paths for visitors to help maintain six feet of distance, and timed ticketing with a maximum capacity during any given block to regulate how many people are in the building at once.

“Our dedicated team has put a lot of efforts into making the aquarium a safe place to visit and we look forward to reopening Birch Aquarium and welcoming back our members and guests,” said Harry Helling, executive director. “We will continue to follow guidance from state and local authorities as we navigate this ever-changing situation.”

Though Birch Aquarium is reopening, it will not hold in-person education or outreach classes during the fall, according to the organization. It will continue to monitor mandated recommendations in hopes of bringing back in-house programming in the winter and spring. 

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