Over the past three months, I’ve experienced a lot of transition since I moved to Skidaway Island, Georgia, to serve as one of four Marine Education Fellows this year at the UGA Aquarium! Social distancing protocols have changed what our day-to-day responsibilities look like, with the biggest change being that our education programs are fully virtual. With this change, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to learn new skills and communication techniques that are proving to be very helpful in this transitional period.

American Alligator spotted in the river on the way to Wassaw Island. Photo by Emily Griffith

I was nervous coming into this position knowing that I wasn’t the most “tech-savvy” person in the world, but I was relieved to find out that educators at the aquarium were figuring things out together. This is something I’ve already come to love and appreciate about this place. Everyone is willing to drop anything to help you which allows us to accomplish many awesome things as a team. It also means that my daily tasks vary a lot. One day I could be in the back of the aquarium assisting in target feeding and animal husbandry and the next I could be on a skiff to Wassaw spotting alligators and eagles. Since starting my fellowship, I have taught a live After School at the Aquarium virtual public program, learned how to care for our aquarium ambassador animals and helped host our first live virtual school program.

During these virtual teaching experiences, I’ve learned the importance of being able to adjust your sails in the face of an unexpected challenge. For example, during my class on ocean pollution, I wanted to conduct a live marine debris survey leading out to the Skidaway River behind our aquarium. We realized in the days leading up to the program that it was going to be rainy and windy, so I decided to pre-record the survey which allowed me to make sure I didn’t miss any of my talking points. Being the lead educator on my very first virtual program taught me how to effectively communicate with my coworkers and improved my problem-solving skills.

In addition to developing virtual programs, we also had the exciting opportunity to work with a local school to host a two-day virtual school trip. The other fellows and I served as moderators for the classes which meant we kept an eye on the chat box for questions and assisted senior educators in presenting their PowerPoints. The virtual field trip was a huge success and a great display of all our unique strengths as educators, and I can’t wait to have more in the future.

This fellowship has also given me the opportunity to face my fears. While I’ve always had a great amount of respect for snakes and the ecosystem services they provide, they make me a little nervous. Katie Higgins, one of our senior educators, helped me realize that my own unease around snakes could actually be an asset while teaching because I can better relate to children who might be feeling uncomfortable around them. Her vote of confidence and the hands-on experience I’ve gained while working with our reptiles has led me to be more comfortable with our resident snakes, and now, I can handle them with no problems!

All in all, I’ve already gained so much in a short amount of time here at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what else the fellowship has to offer in the coming year.