As one of four Marine Education Fellows working for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, I have the opportunity to assist with animal husbandry duties, help run public programs and teach classes to pre-K-12th grade school groups visiting the UGA Aquarium. When I first accepted this fellowship, I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to work with animals. Little did I know that I would come to love working with students and teachers too!

Each day and every classroom setting is different. My activities can range from observing phytoplankton under a microscope in the lab to riding a boat out to Wassaw Island while seeing dolphins, bald eagles and osprey along the way. Every day in marine education is an adventure that brings an experience like no other.

Hands-on experience is the best way for students of all ages to learn, and that is what the UGA Aquarium is all about. Visiting Skidaway Island and becoming a true scientist through involved activities is an experience students will never forget, especially those that are not from coastal Georgia. I enjoy exciting students about coastal Georgia and all the gems it has to offer. You never know how strong of an impression you can make on someone, no matter their age or knowledge of the coastal environment.

The UGA Aquarium offers 35 different classes that include lectures, labs and outdoor explorations to students in grades pre-K-12. I haven’t taught all of the classes yet, but so far one of my favorite classes to teach is the Touch Tank Tour. This class starts with a brief introduction about the different invertebrates we have, and then students have the opportunity to interact with the animals, like horseshoe crabs, whelk and spider crabs.

Students love holding the hermit crabs and spider crabs in their palms and watching them walk around in their hands. They are cautious, yet curious, around the horseshoe crabs and feel accomplished as they hold one for the first time. Touching the soft body of the whelk always catches students by surprise as water squirts out at them and the snail retreats into its shell, shutting its operculum (or hard shell-like part) like a door. Most visitors don’t realize that all of these animals are native and can be found right off the Georgia coast.

One of my favorite parts about teaching is seeing people develop a connection and appreciation for marine organisms. For example, students are usually hesitant to hold a horseshoe crab at first because they see all its moving parts, which can be slightly intimidating at first. However, their curiosity always takes over and they start by touching the edge of the exoskeleton. After a little bit of encouragement, most students end up holding the horseshoe crabs by themselves with huge grins on their faces.

Watching this process of students learning and growing reminds me why I decided to follow this career path. Although I was expecting my fellowship to center around marine animals, my newfound environmental education skills have proven to be extremely rewarding. Just as the students gain valuable experiences when they visit the aquarium, I too am gaining new skills and training in informal education during my time as a Marine Education Fellow.