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“Do-it! Do-Its!” Dress ups, and Others…Hands-On Fun at the Aquarium

A shy third grader teeters on shaking legs. She lowers her eves and blushes as she pulls on the thick jacket that simulates whale blubber. Fins are placed on her hands, a tail is strapped on her body, and large eyes are stuck to the sides of her head as she is transformed into a whale. Her classmates laugh with approval; she looks up and gives a genuine wide mouthed smile, and the students applaud.

Welcome to learning Cabrillo Aquarium’s Ocean Outreach where we blend lectures with hands-on lessons and educational activities that make learning fun.

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is a moderately sized educational museum/aquarium located in San Pedro, California, that focuses on the marine Life of southern California. Our facility educates school groups and the general public through educational displays, live animal exhibits, on-site laboratory/seashore programs, docent-led tours, lectures and slide shows, trips aboard ocean vessels, field trips to local habitats, and an off-site education division called Ocean Outreach.

The Outreach department is responsible for conducting off-site presentations to classes at schools and other facilities. Our goal is to educate students in marine biology and let them have a fun time while they learn. And it works, too! Using hands-on learning techniques has encouraged our department’s tremendous growth. In 1993, we saw over 11,000 children; in 1996, the numbers rose to over 27,000.

During a typical day, we spend an hour with up to four classrooms of 35 students. We offer ten different topics for students in grades pre-K through the eighth grade, everything from puppet shows to squid dissections. Currently, our program travels a 60- mile radius around the Cabrillo Aquarium in three Ocean Outreach vans that are decorated with colorful animal graphics and are folly outfitted with shelving, chillers, filters, and tanks. These vehicles enable us to safely carry props, specimens, and live animals. Even with our close proximity to the Pacific, we find that our visit is the first exposure to sea animals for many of the students who have never visited the ocean.

The Games

So, what kind of games do we take to our students? Interactive ones that make learning fun! I could stand from the front of a classroom and lecture on how waves affect animals, OR I could draw a tide-pool with colored chalk and give students strange claws or suction cups and challenge them to figure out a way to hold on to a rock when a wave 40 times their size crashes over them. Which do you think children would find more interesting? And, more important, which one would children remember best? For many of our classes, we use dress-ups to illustrate the problems or i situations an animal (or humans) may encounter in their ocean environment. For example, when we talk about bluewater plankton collecting, we bring along full S.C.U.B.A. gear and dress a student volunteer with each piece as we explain the use of every item.

Role-play is another technique that helps students understand the job of a marine biologist. In our shark class, for example, we used to bring a tag stick and some tags to show the children when we discussed ways to study sharks. While students found this interesting, we received a much better response when we built a three-dimensional model with a foam insert and invited students to help with the tagging. After the “shark” is tagged, we role play a common scenario. One student becomes a biologist, and another is a fisherman who catches a tagged shark. Role playing helps students understand the importance and the use of the tags.

Ask a student how big 20 feet is, and you will get answers ranging from the size of a Volkswagen Bug to a football field. Instead of simply telling students how big an animal is, we let student volunteers actually measure the size of the animal using a special measuring string, which has animal lengths pre-measured and marked with colored flags. As students walk out the distance of each flag, we tell them a few interesting facts about the animal. In this way, students associate the facts with the visual measurements.

The “Do-it! Do-its!”

Among our most effective teaching techniques are animal behavior activities we call “Do-it! Do-its!” The activity uses no props, it is easy to work with, and every student gets a chance to try it. During the “Do-it! Do-its!” students mimic an animal’s behavior using their whole bodies. For instance, in a lesson on sea stars, we first talk about how the animal finds and consumes its prey. Then we use a puppet to demonstrate how it feeds (some sea stars extend their stomachs into their prey.) Then the “Do-it! Do-its!” take over! The entire class follows our lead as we mimic the sea star’s behavior with our arms and body, step by step, including the part where the animal takes its stomach out. One hand and arm mimic the sea star while the other becomes food. Children are always delighted to pretend to be a hungry sea star, especially when they pretend to spit out their stomachs!

A Few Helpful Hints

While developing hands-on activities to make learning fun for our Ocean Outreach audiences, we have found the following tips to be useful:

  1. Assess your audience. Even games and hands-on activities must meet the special needs of each class.
  2. Be playful, but know the limits of acceptable classroom behavior. Our program thrives because we make learning fun, we joke with the children, play games and laugh with them, but we always remember to maintain class control.
  3. Visual props, models, animal mimicry, and actual specimens engage students with as many senses as possible and work to keep a class’s attention.
  4. Don’t be afraid to evaluate and make changes.

Chris Okamoto has taught in the Outreach division at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro for the past seven years. He currently serves as Outreach Coordinator for the Aquarium. His interest in marine biology first began in the fishing tackle industry where he worked for five years before receiving bachelors and masters degrees from the California State University Long Beach and the California University Dominquez Hills.

Okamoto, Chris. “‘Do-it! Do-its!’ Dress ups, and Others…Hand-On Fun at the Aquarium,” The Docent Educator 7.1 (Autumn 1997): 14-15.

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