If students can’t get to the coast, UGA brings the coast to them

For more than 50 years, educators at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium on Skidaway Island have hosted pre-K-12 grade students for hands-on programs about the coastal environment.

This year, those educators are taking the show on the road.

With support from Bass Pro Shop, Georgia Power and Friends of the UGA Aquarium, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant staff and volunteers are taking programs into every Savannah-Chatham County school.

“Classroom outreach brings exciting marine science experiences to students and teachers who don’t have the resources or time in their teaching schedules to visit the aquarium in person,” said Anne Lindsay, associate director of education at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “We don’t want communities whose schools have limited resources to miss out on important learning opportunities.”

The education team began planning off-site outreach during the pandemic, when the aquarium was closed.

“Marine Debris, the Coast, and Me” introduces sixth and seventh graders to the topic of plastic debris and its impacts on the ocean and coastal zone. Students rotate between different stations, learning about the types of debris, including microplastics, that can impact plankton or dolphins through entanglement or ingestion. As a way of getting students involved outside of the classroom, educators share information about how to reduce marine debris by participating in community cleanups and avoiding single use plastics.

“CrabEcology” uses live animals and small group activities to teach third graders about the physical and behavioral characteristics of different crab species and where they can be found. The program covers topics such as coastal habitats, sand and mud studies, animal adaptations and Georgia’s blue crab fishery.

The goal of both is to engage students in learning experiences that connect them to the outside world. Since February, the marine education staff has presented the programs to more than 1,000 students in 12 different public schools.

Volunteer Michael Siegel educating students using an interactive touch tank.

Angela Willis, who teaches the STEM Lab for grades K-5 at Heard Elementary School in Savannah, signed her third graders up for the CrabEcology outreach program to expose them to outdoor activities that get them excited about the world around them.

“If we can stimulate children in a way that they’re using their sight, sound, sense of touch…it really engages them and anchors whatever topics you’re trying to teach,” said Willis. “Anything that’s hands-on is absolutely fantastic. When they saw there was a touch tank, just about all of them wanted to touch the crabs.”

In addition to the aquarium education staff, the outreach is being presented by four Marine Education Fellows who are spending a year at the UGA Aquarium gaining experience in environmental education. Diane Klement, who has a degree in ecology from UGA, helped deliver both outreach programs and created some of the teaching materials for the marine debris program.

“Over time, I gained more confidence with teaching and adapting a program to unique schools and classrooms,” Klement said. “Moving forward, I am excited to apply the outreach program development and teaching skills to my future career.” She will return to UGA this fall to pursue a master’s degree in wildlife science from the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Marine Education Fellow Diane Klement educating students at Heard Elementary School.

Aquarium educators and volunteers will continue offering the programs in classrooms throughout the 2022-23 school year, hoping to reach about 3,800 students in 46 different public schools.

It’s making a difference, Klement said.

“After the program, some of the students vowed to reduce their plastic consumption and were excited to get out and explore the salt marsh,” she said. “Some even said they wanted to be environmental educators.”

Contact Anne Moser, amoser@uga.edu, to make a gift to the UGA Foundation in support of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant education programs.


Writer: Emily Kenworthy, ekenworthy@uga.edu, 336-466-1520

Contact: Anne Lindsay, lindsaya@uga.edu

Coastal Research and Extension Fellow gains hands-on experience in public service

During his first six months as UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s first Coastal Research and Extension Fellow Isaiah Leach has moderated virtual public programming, cultured algae in the Shellfish Research Lab, assisted with citizen science programs such as Adopt-A-Wetland and the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network, and developed environmental education content for students.

Leach holds a snake at the UGA Aquarium.

“Hopefully, this experience makes it easier for me to get into graduate school, which is one of my major goals now,” Leach said. “This is also a great opportunity to make connections with many important and interesting people.”

A graduate of Georgia Southern University with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a strong interest in marine ecosystems, Leach began his fellowship in September 2020.

“The purpose of the Coastal Research and Extension Fellowship is to give recent graduates exposure to the variety of positions held within UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant,” said Nina Sassano, intern coordinator for Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s diverse workforce includes environmental educators, science communicators, and extension specialists who work with communities to address issues related to stormwater management, coastal resilience, water quality and sustainable fisheries.

Leach will continue to work with a variety of faculty and staff throughout his nine-month fellowship, including assisting with the development of a Georgia Seafood Trail, creating marketing and communications materials and helping to organize conferences. He will be exposed to the multidisciplinary work happening across UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s facilities in Athens, Skidaway Island and Brunswick.

“I’m still feeling out what specifically it is I want to do professionally; although it will definitely be within the biological sciences,” said Leach.

The Coastal Research and Extension Fellowship was made possible through support from the Friends of the UGA Aquarium, whose donations help the Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s marine education, environmental outreach and coastal research initiatives. If you are interested in becoming a Friend, visit https://gacoast.uga.edu/give/friends-of-the-uga-aquarium/.

UGA Shellfish Research Lab expands algae research and production

Raising millions of baby oysters takes a lot of hard work. Just ask Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s aquaculture extension agents based at the UGA Shellfish Research Lab on Skidaway Island. Since 2015, the shellfish team has been producing single oysters and working with shellfish farmers on the Georgia coast who grow them to market size oysters.

A large part of growing oysters in the hatchery requires feeding them a nutritious diet that consists of algae. In the beginning, researchers at the lab would purchase algae food from outside vendors or depend on natural sources of algae coming in from the Skidaway River, but a few years ago, Aquaculture Extension Specialist Rob Hein started experimenting with growing his own algae culture at the lab to supplement the store bought and natural food.

“It’s so much cheaper and better quality,” says Hein, who’s become the lab’s in-house algologist. “I think what prompted it was traveling to other hatcheries and seeing how they operate. I have been slowly expanding every year.”

Large outdoor algae tanks sit outside the UGA Shellfish Research Lab.

Hein’s experimental algae research has since turned into a larger scale algae operation. The lab has retrofitted space at the hatchery to make room for large algae tanks, both inside and outside. Thanks to fundraising efforts through Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s annual Oyster Roast for a Reason, the lab has been able to acquire several flat bottom algae tanks that can hold up to 5,100 gallons of algae. Having larger tanks for algae culture in an environmentally controlled space has greatly increased the reliability of the cultures, meaning they now have a more consistent source of highly nutritious food for the oysters.

“We’ve been able to increase the amount of food that we can provide to the nursery, greatly improving survival and growth while reducing costs,” Hein says.

Hein and the rest of the team are now growing a variety of live algae species that are fed to the oysters at different stages of their life cycle. The Shellfish Lab currently operates the only oyster hatchery in Georgia, but the team hopes to share what they have learned about algae culture with new hatcheries that become established on the coast.

“Every strain, let alone every species, has a slightly different nutrient profile and slightly different habitat tolerances. It is kind of a balancing act to produce complete nutrition for the oysters while maximizing growth rates based on the environmental conditions and water quality that changes throughout the year,” he says. “We are looking forward to using our new algae tanks as we continue to make our hatchery more efficient at producing oyster seed for the industry.”

Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant expands virtual programming

When the coronavirus pandemic caused Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to close its coastal facilities in March, Public Program Coordinator Kayla Clark came up with a plan to offer a suite of virtual summer programs that families could enjoy remotely.

Throughout June and July, Clark worked with educators and extension specialists to host a series of online events that have attracted hundreds of participants, reaching new audiences that could not visit the Marine Education Center and Aquarium in person.

“Virtual programming is a pretty new thing for our faculty and staff, and it’s been a bit of a learning curve,” Clark says. “We’ve got the rhythm down now and are looking forward to offering even more virtual programming this fall so that we can continue to engage children and adults.”

Each program includes interactive activities that families can do together at home. The style aligns with the hands-on, feet-in approach that educators at the UGA Aquarium use to facilitate coastal exploration with all ages. Recordings of the summer programs are available for viewing on the Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant YouTube channel.

“I’ve been blown away by the engaging material, the way you’ve found a way to connect with kids of all ages and have made them something that we all look forward to,” Brookwood High School teacher and Friend of the Aquarium John Chvatal wrote in an email to Clark. “You have put together lessons that can work for any age group, you have great transitions, interesting information and the enthusiasm and depth of knowledge is really at a topnotch level.”

Trey Cooper holding meeting to explain how to use new equipment

Trey Cooper, a member of the communications team, led a socially distanced meeting for faculty and staff to learn how to use the new equipment.

The communications team at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant was recently able to purchase multimedia equipment that will boost the quality of the online programs. The new equipment, purchased with funding donated by Friends of the Aquarium, includes wireless microphones, tripods, a webcam, a 360-degree camera and a WIFI hotspot device. The communications team held a socially distanced training session for faculty and staff to explain how to use the equipment and offer tips and best practices on creating video content.

“Our faculty and staff are working together to deliver engaging, educational content during a time when connecting with people can be difficult,” says Mark Risse, director of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “Our hope is that with this new equipment, we can expand the type of programming we’re offering and make our facilities and field experiences virtually accessible to broader audiences.”

The new equipment will enable faculty and staff to utilize specific areas of the aquarium where background noise and lighting can be a limiting factor. It will also allow them to host programs about dolphin studies and barrier island explorations in the field. The new microphones can capture dialogue without interference from the wind and other outdoor noises.

Details about the new fall programs will be available on Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s event calendar in early September at https://gacoast.uga.edu/events/

In addition to increasing virtual programming, the UGA Aquarium will reopen on Aug. 5 for small group visits. Groups of up to 10 people may reserve an hour to visit the aquarium with a marine educator who can talk about the different exhibits and answer questions. The programs will be offered Mondays through Thursdays at 10 a.m. and at 1 p.m. Masks, social distancing and hand sanitizing will be required. The program cost is $50 and online payment is required when the reservation is made. More information is available at https://gacoast.uga.edu/visit-us/

Support for UGA Aquarium includes funding for tools and volunteer labor

New bluebird boxes are on the horizon for the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, adding additional educational resources to help visitors learn more about the importance of native wildlife to coastal ecosystems.

New tools include clippers, hammers and rakes for outdoor projects.

New tools include clippers, hammers and rakes for outdoor projects.

Contributions from Friends of the UGA Aquarium, a nonprofit organization that supports UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, are being used to buy new rakes, clippers, hammers, gloves and other tools that volunteers can use to maintain the Jay Wolf Nature Trail and add educational attractions that will enhance the aquarium experience.

“This purchase affords our volunteers appropriate tools and storage of these tools to do regular trail surveys and maintenance, pruning, clearing of debris and other small but necessary maintenance at the Marine Education Center and Aquarium,” says Katie Higgins, educator and volunteer coordinator at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit. Prior to acquiring the tools, volunteers brought in their own equipment or worked with the personal tools of aquarium staff.

As the volunteer program continues to grow under Higgins’ leadership, so do volunteer opportunities at UGA’s coastal facilities on Skidaway Island. One of the most popular areas on the UGA Aquarium campus includes the bluff overlooking the Skidaway River and the Jay Wolf Nature Trail which runs through a maritime forest. The outdoor spaces inspire visitors to develop a stronger connection and appreciation for the outdoors.

Andy Van Epps, who has been volunteering with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant since 2018, was instrumental in putting together a list of appropriate tools needed to accomplish outdoor maintenance. He also helped assemble the new storage shed used to house the equipment.

“Having the tools provided by the aquarium allows volunteers like me to show up and to be ready to address the basic landscaping needs,” Van Epps says.

Writer: Emily Kenworthy, ekenworthy@uga.edu, 912.598.2348
Contact: Katie Higgins, kt.higgins@uga.edu, 912-598-2387

A school field trip to the coast was cancelled. The students’ support was not

Each Spring, fifth grade students from St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Atlanta visit the Marine Education Center and Aquarium on Skidaway Island.

And each year, they bring a gift: Proceeds from an annual cookie sale they hold in advance of the trip.

The students’ trip was cancelled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The $1,000 gift, however, made it as usual since the cookie fundraiser was completed before the school transitioned to online learning.

“The students did an incredible job and enclosed with this letter is the check that we are donating to help you continue to do the great work you do for the coast of Georgia,” wrote Mary E. McPherson, principal of the elementary school at St. Martin’s. “This is our way to continue to support you and to share our love with all of you who have been and continue to be an important part of our lives.”

Since 2011, students at the Atlanta school have donated nearly $10,000 to UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant for the Marine Education Center and Aquarium. Over the years, the money has been used to purchase a variety of items, including two life rafts, boat fenders, a hot water heater, a refrigerator, a ship’s horn, a spot light, and most recently, a hydrophone, which is an underwater listening device that can be used for dolphin observations, and estuarine and dock studies.

“St. Martin’s gift in support of learning science out on the water not only impacts their students but also the coastal experiences of many others,” said Anne Lindsay, associate director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “We are inspired by the St. Martin’s students’ commitment to paying those opportunities forward. It is a real joy to teach such curious and engaged students each spring and we a grateful for their continued support.”

The students raise the money each year at a bake sale, part of St. Martin’s annual Cookie Company project, in which fifth-graders work in small teams to form cookie companies. They learn about advertising, website development, budgets, and they sharpen their math skills through calculating for large-batch baking. All of this takes place over 10 days, culminating with a school-wide bake sale.

“It lets our students see where their money is going,” McPherson said, “which is an important part of our service-learning development.”

In closing her 2020 letter, McPherson wrote: “You are special to us and even though this year’s fifth graders weren’t able to visit you, we understand the importance of what you do and want to continue the tradition of donating money to UGA Marine Extension.”

Contact: Anne Lindsay, lindsaya@uga.edu, 912-598-2355

New hydrophones will let UGA Aquarium visitors experience the fascinating world of underwater sounds

Imagine hearing the sounds the dolphins make as they glide through the water, or the mating call of the oyster toadfish.

Visitors to the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium on Skidaway Island will be able to experience the underwater sounds of coastal habitats with the help of three hydrophones, purchased with donations from Friends of the UGA Aquarium.

An image of the hydrophone equipment

A close up image of the hydrophone equipment.

“We will be able to build upon existing teaching experiences by incorporating soundscapes into lecture, laboratory and field-based programs,” says Dodie Sanders, an educator at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, which runs the aquarium. “We envision capturing underwater sounds of fish, other organisms and anthropogenic noises from deep water habitats, to oyster reef communities, to tidal rivers and sounds to create learning experiences for teachers, students and the public.”

Soundscape ecology is the study of how sound impacts the behaviors of living organisms in a particular environment. The underwater recordings will allow educators to teach students how to identify different fish sounds, learn about fish behavior and why they might hear more marine life in some areas, like oyster reefs, which provide important habitat for fish and crustaceans.

“We will incorporate use of the hydrophones in existing Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant programs, like our invertebrate lab where students can listen to underwater sounds on the dock as they collect invertebrate samples for lab studies,” Sanders says. “We will also be able to use the instruments during our dolphin tours, fish labs, trawls and public programs like Skidaway Marine Science Day.”

Sanders and Todd Recicar, marine operations supervisor at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, tested the equipment and gathered preliminary recordings in Wassaw Sound. In one of their recordings, you can hear snapping shrimp and to the mating calls of oyster toadfish, both native species to the Georgia coast. Listen here.

The recordings of underwater sounds will be instrumental in developing new onsite and online programming at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. Educators hope to eventually develop an exhibit at the UGA Aquarium using the hydrophones which would allow visitors to listen to real time sounds of fish, dolphins and invertebrates from the Skidaway River.

Friends of the Aquarium help expand educational programming on the coast

It takes fourth grader Ariona Taylor a few minutes before she is ready to touch the horseshoe crab in the touch tank at the UGA Aquarium. With a few words of encouragement from Marine Education Fellow Rachel Wilson, Ariona takes a deep breath and places her hand on top of its carapace with a huge grin on her face.

Ariona, along with several of her classmates at Andrea B. Williams Elementary school, are visiting the UGA Aquarium for the first time through giving from Friends of the UGA Aquarium.

The charitable support provided scholarships for 100 underserved students in the Savannah-Chatham area to participate in a half day Estuary Exploration program led by marine educators and marine education fellows at the aquarium.

“This funding provides opportunities for students and teachers whose budgets do not allow for science-based field trips and experiential learning away from their school site,” says Anne Lindsay, associate director of marine education at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “The program also adds to the learning done in the classroom and increases awareness of Georgia’s coastal environments.”

little kids in the marsh

Andrea B. Williams Elementary school students learn about salt marsh habitats and wildlife.

The Estuary Exploration program includes lab, field, and live animal experiences. During the program, students practice microscope and scientific observation skills while learning more about the natural world around them and their role in protecting coastal resources.

“You could see the ocean and all the animals,” says Ariona in explaining why exploring the salt marsh was her favorite part of the trip.

“Science is cool!” adds classmate Rawshawn Nix.

These hands-on educational experiences allow students to expand their knowledge of coastal habitats and become inspired to steward the resources of the natural environment in the Savannah area.

Alumni turn their appreciation for the coast into an opportunity for a student

You can see the salt marsh from nearly every room in Dorothea and Wink Smith’s Hilton Head home.

The activity varies with the tide. When the water is high, boats cruise through a channel that connects residents and businesses to the intercoastal waterway and the ocean. At low tide, you can walk out to the edge of the marsh where there might be wading birds, like herons, egrets and wood storks. Geckos perch on the wooden rail of the deck.

Their fascination with the marsh, its occupants and importance to the coastal ecosystem is what drew the Smiths from their home in Ohio to the South Carolina shore once they retired.

And it was that fascination that drew the Smiths to UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant on Skidaway Island, in neighboring Savannah.

“We live on the marsh, we walk on the beach,” Wink Smith says. “It fit right in.”

Since then, the Smiths committed money from the Patrick Family Foundation (Dorothea Smith’s family’s foundation) in Decatur, Georgia, to fund a summer internship at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant on Skidaway Island for a UGA student interested in marine sciences. Their gift will endow one internship a year.

“We have an emphasis on education and community and being a part of anything that helps the environment,” Dorothea Smith says of the foundation.

UGA offers summer internships in public education programming, communications, phytoplankton monitoring, marine careers, aquarium science, facilities operations and shellfish research at the Skidaway Marine Education Center and Aquarium.

“We went over there and were very impressed,” Dorothea Smith says. “We are facing ecological changes, and they’re on top of it.”

“The connection between us living here on the marsh and seeing what they’re doing with education made this scholarship opportunity push all the buttons we were looking for.”

Students supported by the Patrick Family Foundation Fund for the Smith Family Marine Summer Internship will have an opportunity to engage in a broad range of activities at the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant facilities on Skidaway Island.

They can help care for the animals on display at the UGA Aquarium, learning to use scientific instruments commonly used in marine science research. They will have the opportunity to research specific behavioral and physical characteristics of several marine species, as well as their habitats and diet. They can shadow marine science researchers in the field and lab, learn about shellfish research, including oyster production at the UGA Hatchery, and perhaps apply their knowledge of marine science concepts in the design and execution of a research project.

“Summer interns in this role will gain a deep understanding of Georgia’s coastal habitats and the functions of coastal ecosystems,” said Mark Risse, director of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “The Smiths recognize that this experience is fundamental to a student interested in becoming a marine scientist or education.”

Dorothea Patrick Smith, from Decatur, Georgia, and Wink Smith, from East Liverpool, Ohio, met as students at UGA. They honeymooned on Hilton Head and made a home for their three girls in Ohio, where Wink Smith worked in the ceramics industry.

They bought their house in Hilton Head five years ago and spend 9-10 months of the year there. They plan to sell their Ohio home and relocate there permanently.

Between living on the marsh and the early morning walks on the beach, they have found ways to get involved in local conservation efforts. During a recent morning walk, Wink Smith found an unmarked turtle nest on the beach and contacted the person on Hilton Head responsible for tracking the turtles during nesting season.

“With education and communication we’re all becoming better stewards of the beach, the ocean and the marsh,” Dorothea Smith says.

: Kelly Simmons, simmonsk@uga.edu, 706-542-2512

Meet Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s summer interns

Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is hosting 14 summer interns at the coast who are working with staff and faculty in Brunswick, Athens, and Savannah on a number of research, education and outreach initiatives. Summer internships with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant are critical to enhancing environmental literacy and workforce development in the coastal region. Seven of the internships were made possible thanks to support from Friends of the UGA Aquarium.

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