Morgan County school system advancing partnership with georgia aquarium
story by Kathryn Purcell
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Sitting Indian-style in three rows in front of the two-foot thick wall of glass, Morgan County third graders are in awe of what they see swimming in front of them.
"Can anyone tell me if a whale shark is a whale or a shark?" the group's guide asks, as Alice, a member of the world's largest fish species, swims above them.
There is some discussion among the students before opinions are vocalized.
"It's a whale."
"No, it's a shark."
"Actually, it's a shark," the guide explains. "Anytime an animal's name is made up of two kinds of animals, it's always the last name."
The sigh of understanding that comes from half of the group is cut short by a louder "YES!" coming from a few of the students at the far end of the rows who answered the question correctly.
Last week's third grade field trip to the Atlanta-based Georgia Aquarium is part of the first step in a partnership between Morgan County schools and the facility. The partnership is new to both parties, and has just come about this year.
Based on a desire on the part of the Aquarium to develop a more involved education program, the Aquarium elected to identify around four school systems of varying size and makeup in the state and begin relationships with each.
"We were in the process of thinking 'How can we do more with structured education groups? How can we make it more than just a field trip?'...We want to extend learning that occurs in the classroom in a very succinct manner," Georgia Aquarium Director of Education Albert George said.
Because of its size and location, among other things, Morgan County came highly recommended, according to George.
"In Morgan County, you have knowing every child by name, knowing the history of the child because you taught them before, having a personal relationship," George said. "It's a totally different perspective...We want to learn from a school system that does this well."
After talks between the Aquarium and the school system earlier this year, a relationship was established and the mutual learning began between the two institutions. George came out to visit the schools.
"He toured the schools and was very impressed with the school system," Assistant Superintendent Ralph Bennett said. "I think he sees the benefit of being involved with a school system like ours."
And, as part of the first step of the process, Morgan County students of various ages and different classes began taking field trips, and will continue to through the end of the year.
"Look guys! Here's sea-horses and there's poison dart frogs over there!" one third grader said, passing tanks before making it another exhibit.
"Eww, I didn't like that," another said, after touching a skate. "That's scary."
"It looks like they have no brain," another said, studying a tank of jellyfish.
Members of the Morgan County School System, both teachers and administrators, are also going on field trips to the facility to observe the students' interactions with, and responses to, what they observe there.
"It was thrilling to see first-hand how excited our third graders were as they experienced the Aquarium for the first time," Morgan County Primary School Instructional Lead Teacher Brillo Jackson said. "Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the exhibits and shared many fascinating facts with the students. On this third grade trip, students were exposed to several habitats that match Georgia Science Performance Standards. Students were encouraged to touch certain animals and interact with the exhibits."
They are also going to the Aquarium to participate in the mutual learning aspect of the partnership -- to help with Aquarium with their current education program and to find out more about how they can incorporate various aspects of the facility into their respective curriculums.
"I went along to see a field trip in action," Jackson said. "Mr. Al George, director of education at the Georgia Aquarium, is seeking our input on how the Aquarium can improve what they are doing for students who come to visit...The Aquarium has information for teachers to help prepare them for their trip. I definitely see this pre-teaching of vocabulary and concepts as a critical step in gaining the most knowledge from an Aquarium experience."
Both the Aquarium and the school system are making plans for the next step of the partnership in linking local classrooms to the Atlanta facility.
"Both groups desire to expand the boundaries of how people see the Aquarium, and bringing what the Aquarium has to offer into the classroom," Bennett said.
Part of this plan includes the use of streaming video, the broadcast of which will be made possible through the school system's SMARTBoard technology. With the use of this technology, younger students will be able to watch events like whale shark feedings and older biology students will be able to view veterinary procedures on the Aquarium's animals, for example, building on what students learn from year to year.
More than just observation, the technology departments at both organizations are working towards giving students the ability to interact with Aquarium scientists and engineers.
Both George and Bennett, as well as teachers and administrators, expressed hopes that this experience with the Aquarium would get students interested in more than just science, but in math, vocabulary and even career opportunities.
"We can change their perception about scientists; that they're not just people in white coats working in a sterile environment, they work in flip flops getting dirty," Bennett said.
"It is my hope that once the WOW factor is over, our students will begin to enjoy the many opportunities that the Aquarium has to offer," Jackson said.
Also, George stated that, with the help of the Morgan County School System, he hopes to establish a body of educators sharing what and how they've adapted their Aquarium experience to their classrooms.
"In the future, I'd like to create a community of sharing, of how different school systems leverage this information and share it," George said. "What I would like to see is to create a virtual community of thought. That would be awesome, teachers sharing with one another."
Through these field trips, Morgan County teachers are quickly finding out one thing's for certain -- students are much more apt to learn about things they can see and touch for themselves, things that they then become interested in.
"As knowledgeable as our tour guide was, she couldn't keep the students' attention when the whale sharks were swimming by," Jackson said. "But, then again, isn't that important, too?"