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Fun and entertainment, as visitors quickly learn, are The Florida Aquarium’s priorities. However, underlying the colorful exhibits and exhilarating activities is conservation education.
As Debbi Stone, The Aquarium’s Vice President of Learning, recently put it: “We want everyone who leaves here to know how to better respect and restore our Blue Planet.”
The commitment to education goes far beyond informing visitors about the ocean’s wonders. Stone pointed out that “education outreach, which include classes, field trips, sleepovers, and other programs, reaches about 100,000 individuals a year.”
Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of those efforts should talk to Tiffany Oliver, who teaches biology in Robinson High School’s International Baccalaureate program and also is the sponsor of the Marine Biology Club, which is open to all Robinson students.
“I love working with The Florida Aquarium,” she told me. “The Aquarium does so much to educate people about marine life, which is important because we have such an amazing resource here in Tampa Bay. I have taken students to classes, the behind-the-scenes-tours, out on the bay on the catamaran, and to explore Fantasy Island [a former dredge island being restored to natural habitat]. It is cool to see them learn about ecosystems in the field.”
Furthermore, The Florida Aquarium demonstrates to her students the importance of science.
“I am thrilled at how The Florida Aquarium is keeping at the forefront of marine research,” she said.
The Aquarium staff fascinated her students with a presentation on their groundbreaking work on reproducing corals in the lab, a critical endeavor given that Florida’s coral reefs are disappearing rapidly because of disease, pollution, climate change, boat damage, and other factors. The Aquarium’s Center for Conservation at Apollo Beach recently became the first organization to induce pillar coral to reproduce in a laboratory successfully.
Oliver, who has a master’s degree in marine biology from the University of South Florida, appreciates the challenges of research because she is a researcher herself and has conducted studies in New Zealand, Oregon, and the Caribbean.
Currently, she is conducting research at USF on echinoderms – sea stars - but her commitment to her family, which includes a 4-year-old, and her students, limits lab time.
And she doesn’t regret that a bit.
Oliver loves teaching and brings joy and passion to the task of rousing students to the importance of science and the marvels of the natural world.
Her infectious enthusiasm illustrates why good teachers remain devoted to their profession despite often being undervalued by society and lawmakers.
She continually writes grant applications that will enable her students to learn outside the classroom.
“I believe in being hands-on. If you are going to learn science, you need to do it outside. You need adventures.”
She’s taken her classes to Picnic Island, Weedon Island, Crystal Springs, and other parks and preserves where students can get wet and dirty learning about coastal ecology.
But the Aquarium, with its dramatic exhibits, helpful staff, and variety of classes and programs, is her favorite destination.
“I like the mentality there and the people. Debbi [Stone], Tristin [Ware, Director of Education Operations], and the others give so much of their time and energy to us. …. They make students aware of how to treat the environment.”
A favorite program for Oliver is the Regional Ocean Conference, which The Florida Aquarium has hosted since 1998.
Each year the education team organizes the conference, where selected teachers and students from schools in the Tampa Bay region focus on a particular environmental topic. The subjects have ranged from “Invasive Species to “My Story: Creating Change in Tampa Bay.”
Stone said over the years, the conference has evolved to not only educate students about the ocean but help them discover ways to protect it.
Stone said the number of participants is limited and varies each year depending on available funding.
The last conference topic was “Teens for Turtles.”
The conference began with an evening sea turtle workshop for teachers at The Aquarium in the fall. The staff urged teachers to recruit students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy such a learning experience.
For her part, Oliver had Marine Science Club members write essays to select the three students who would attend. She was more interested in motivation than polish. After the teacher workshop, she began holding sessions on turtles with the three.
A few months later, the Aquarium hosted a day-long workshop for the students, who represented seven high schools and five middle schools. They got to observe The Aquarium’s three turtles and engage in several activities that informed them about the turtle’s life history, threats to their survival, and what needs to be done to protect them. Aquarium Senior Veterinarian Dr. Ari Fustukjian told them about treating sea turtles that had swallowed plastic bags, been poisoned by red tide, or suffered other maladies.
The teens at each school were charged with coming up with a conservation project they would present at the final session in April. They had to develop and execute their ideas. Thanks to support from the Sea Turtle License Plate and the nonprofit Sea Turtle Conservancy, The Aquarium could provide $200 to each school’s effort.
The projects were presented on the final conference day attended by students and teachers. In addition to Aquarium speakers, experts from Mote Marine Lab, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, Tampa Bay Estuary Program, and other organizations were on hand to discuss issues and answer students’ questions.
After lunch, the projects were displayed and discussed, and Stone was impressed with the thoughtfulness and creativity of all their work. Project titles included “Help Them Swim Safely” and “Saving the Ocean One Bottle at a Time.”
Oliver said her students wanted to highlight the dangers of turtles being caught in nets or snarled in fishing lines. So, they used recycled fishing lines, glass beads, and turtle charms to make turtles bracelets, each with a card detailing turtle conservation facts.
The students sold the bracelets at schools, stores, and the conference, making almost $500 that they donated to turtle conservation groups. They sold out of the bracelets and plan to make more.
For Stone, seeing the teens’ active engagement after the Regional Ocean Conference makes all the logistical details worthwhile:
“You can see that the students are inspired. We’ve had a high percentage come back and volunteer. … what they do after they leave here is what is important. It is about motivating people to act.”
Oliver had a similar conclusion: “I loved being part of the conference. The kids had a lot to do to prepare. They had to meet outside the school and really work together. It was neat to see how it all came together and how proud they were of what they accomplished. The conference is a great way to raise conservation awareness.”
Joe Guidry, a Tampa native, worked for The Tampa Tribune Company for more than 40 years. He joined The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department in 1984, later became Deputy Editorial Page editor and took over as Opinion Page Editor in 2008, a position he held until the Tribune ceased publication in May 2016. Read more...