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New Aquarium Education Center Opens Door To More Hands-On Learning

Since the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened, it has welcomed school groups for free.  For most students, that meant self-guided tours through the Aquarium. With the opening of its Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education, more kids will get a chance for hands-on learning.  

Workshops are already underway this summer.  

“We've got students from Marina, Seaside. Megan's actually from Pleasanton.  So this is a one week program where they’re basically learning about the design thinking process,” says Katy Scott, STEM Integration Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

She’s working inside the new Innovation Lab with students from the Aquarium’s Teen Conservation Leader Program. 

“And what they’re actually doing is they’re building props we’re going to use to teach third through fifth graders about these animals.” 

Salinas High Senior Allison Gray uses popsicle sticks and construction paper to build a prototype of a sea urchin that eats kelp.

“It's really cool that they're trusting us to make these things for the kids who’ll come here all year and actually use them,” says Gray.

The Innovation Lab is filled with all sorts of tools for the teens to get the job done: sewing machines, power drills, a laser cutter.  And the Innovation Lab itself is a new tool inside the Aquarium’s new Center for Ocean Education.

The four story building on Cannery Row also houses offices, a video lab and five classrooms.  Upstairs, Rita Bell walks into one of those classrooms where a teacher training is underway.  

“You can see they’re making great use of the whiteboard walls for brainstorming,” says Bell, Vice President of Education at the Aquarium. 

She says those whiteboard walls help reduce paper waste. Across the room, she points out two long rectangular aquariums. Mounted on the side of each is a movable camera.    

“So that students can zero in on whatever little critters are inside the tank, like hermit crab or sea anemone or whatever, and actually get really zoomed in, close-up views of that,” she says.

Every year, about 80,000 students visit the Aquarium on school field trips.  Now, most will have access to more than a self-guided tour. 

“We know that the kids have a better chance of learning content if it's a staff-delivered program rather than, you know, just kind of wandering around the Aquarium picking things up as they do,” says Bell.

With the expansion, Bell next wants to figure out which schools don’t take advantage of the Aquarium's free programs and how to get them here. 

She believes these hands-on programs can be transformative.  They were for her. She attended the Aquarium’s first marine science teacher institute back in 1986.  She was a middle school math and science teacher.

“It was just a real inspirational experience that sort of changed my way of teaching and changed my attitude about being a professional educator,” she says.

Inside the Innovation Lab, Katy Scott says this space is allowing the Aquarium to do programs it never has done before, including one called Design for the Ocean launching this fall.  It’s for eighth through tenth graders.  

“And what that is is it's an after-school semester-long program where students learn about a conservation issue and they go through the design thinking process to design a device that will actually reduce their impact,” says Scott.

Registration is now open for that and other Aquarium education programs.  The free education programs cost about $5-million a year and are paid for by donations.  The $42-million center was also built with donor money. Plans for the center have been in the works for nearly a decade.