My marine education fellowship has a variety of responsibilities, the most prominent being environmental education. As a fellow, I look forward to teaching coastal ecology and marine science to all age groups. However, as we tread the COVID-19 pandemic, being an educator has been challenging. At the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, the majority of our education efforts have been virtual field trips, labs and public programs. Teaching virtually is different; many times it felt as though I was speaking to black screens with only the names of muted participants. As of February 2021, I am happy to share that we have restarted in-person outreach with COVID-19 safety precautions.
From February to May, the UGA marine education team will be visiting St. Andrews School in Savannah once a week to teach kindergarteners about coastal Georgia. The environmental education classes we’re teaching focus on coastal fish, tidal creeks and loggerhead sea turtles. Some classes include live animals, games or guided tours of a specific ecosystem. St. Andrews has a patch of maritime forest which allows us explore the outdoors with students. During one of the trips into the forest, we had students make observations about their surroundings and collect anything off the forest floor in a small cup. When we came back as a group, students shared the items they had collected, which included a sweetgum tree seedpod, pieces of saw palmetto and leaves from different tree species. Although many students were familiar with identifying live oaks and Spanish moss, this activity allowed them to learn more about the different kinds of trees around them.
My favorite part about teaching in the maritime forest was assisting students collecting insects in the leaf litter. Once a student found a critter, I helped them put it into a plastic insect box that had a magnifying glass on top to better see any small insects. The first student I helped found a spider, and many students were fond of collecting pill bugs. The experience made me realize how much I miss teaching younger children. Rather that work, it often feels like playtime, especially when we can actually explore the habitats they are learning about.
In addition to in-person teaching at St. Andrews School, we have had a few in-person school groups visit the aquarium. In order to follow COVID-19 safety precautions, we allow 10 participants in the aquarium with 1-2 educators. If the group has up to 20 participants, we split them into two groups of 10 where one group tours the aquarium while the second group participates in an activity outside at the pavilion. Then, the groups switch to participate in both activities. The activities at the pavilion can vary from coastal reptiles to marine invertebrates which are often accompanied by live animals. After interacting with our ambassador animals, the group is able to walk on our Jay Wolf Nature Trail, which meanders through a maritime forest and salt marsh habitats, truly allows visitors to see dynamic changes from one ecosystem to another. Although we may not be in a formal classroom, it allows students to interactively learn about science and animals.
I’m excited to see that we are slowly starting to reintroduce some of our in-person education activities. The pandemic has made me realize how impactful experiential learning can be, and I’m excited to reach more students through these in-person experiences while maintaining a a safe learning environment.