For its swift and broad response in providing live virtual science lessons to schools suddenly pushed by COVID-19 into online learning, the Norwalk Marine Aquarium is honored for the best educational initiative in 2020 by any zoo or aquarium in the country.
The Maritime Aquarium’s implementation of an attractive new list of STEM-based virtual programs – and hosting globally – today received the top prize for education at the annual conference of the ‘Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has 241 members. This is the fifth AZA award in the past six years for the educational initiatives of the Maritime Aquarium.
Since the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, the Maritime Aquarium has broadcast live-streamed courses meeting standards on animals, conservation, habitats and other marine science-related topics to more than 38,000 students and individuals in 44 States and on five continents – North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
“The pandemic has profoundly affected all aspects of our lives, but not more than those of our children and students, who lost 18 months of critical in-person educational experiences,” said Aquarium President Jason Patlis. “The Maritime Aquarium has moved literally overnight to establish a whole new paradigm of interactive virtual learning and to fill the void left by the sudden closure of schools across the country. The positive response from teachers, parents and students has confirmed the value of our programs, and this national award confirms the quality of our programs.
Tom Naiman, vice president of education for the Aquarium, said it was significant that this was the first time AZA has awarded an education award for a virtual program.
“The educational reach of zoos and aquariums extends far beyond their physical walls and far beyond what had been traditional boundaries in dealing with their audiences,” said Naiman. “At a time when students, teachers and parents desperately needed science content and educational facilities last spring, zoos and aquariums provided them. And the Maritime Aquarium has particularly responded to this vital need quickly, widely and effectively.
The Maritime Aquarium’s education team works closely with schools in Connecticut and New York City, providing (in a typical year) STEM education experiences to some 80,000 students per year. When Norwalk Public Schools were forced to close due to COVID last year, the Aquarium responded quickly to help unprepared teachers take distance education. After meeting with NPS officials on March 13, 2020 – the day the Aquarium and schools in the city closed – the Aquarium’s education team adapted 10 pilot programs and prepared them for inclusion in the programs. online from teachers before March 23.
As schools closed everywhere, word quickly spread about the Aquarium’s live virtual offerings, which were eventually expanded to 23 standards-based K-12 programs and to also include regular public presentations. , programs in Spanish, two one-week sessions of a virtual summer camp, programs with translation into American Sign Language and programs adapted for students with autism and Down’s syndrome.
The feat was launched even as the Maritime Aquarium itself was challenged by closures and restrictions related to the pandemic. With the Aquarium closed to all except essential personnel from March 13 to June 20, 2020, the programs were first presented by Aquarium educators live from home, supplemented by videos of seals, sharks and other animals filmed by members of the breeding department. When the Aquarium reopened on June 20, virtual programs were broadcast from a dedicated classroom “broadcast” space in the Aquarium with live streams in front of the animal displays and behind the scenes.
As of June 2021, the Maritime Aquarium had presented 1,644 virtual programs to schools, reaching 27,344 students, as well as virtual family programs to 11,343 other viewers. Schools and individuals participated from as far away as Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil, India, Nigeria and South Korea.
Naiman attributed the success of the Aquarium’s virtual programs to several factors, including: the speed with which the Aquarium was able to adapt its regular “in-person” educational presentations into virtual offerings; that the programs are always presented live by two educators with the possibility of interacting with the students (as opposed to the pre-recorded programs offered by many other institutions); and the high quality of the content, which leads to repeat registrations and positive “word of mouth”.
With the 2021-22 school year now underway but with schools still subject to COVID restrictions, the current list of Aquarium educational programs is available at www.maritimeaquarium.org/distance-learning.
Naiman added that online programs will continue to be part of the Aquarium’s educational offerings beyond the pandemic. Among the reasons, he said, they are more affordable for schools and they allow the Aquarium to provide access to aspects of breeding that are impossible to show to a large class of students in person.
Likewise, the Aquarium will continue to offer occasional live virtual programs for families and individuals. Check out the offers and register at https://www.maritimeaquarium.org/virtual-programs.
Presenting the 2021 award today, the AZA judges said, “This program has an impressive reach and is connected to many diverse communities across the world through its inclusive approach to different languages and abilities.
Last year, AZA presented an award for excellence in education to “Sound Resilience: Get on Board! program, a four-year public awareness campaign that engaged 2,000 local middle and high school students to model how to prepare our coastline for climate change.
In 2019, the Maritime Aquarium won two AZA awards. The Aquarium’s volunteer training program received the top prize for volunteer engagement. And an initiative to make the Aquarium – and 10 other Fairfield County attractions – more accessible to guests with special needs received an Excellence Award for Diversity. Both efforts were initiatives of the Aquarium’s education department.
And, in 2016, the Aquarium’s STEM-focused after-school program for high school students – called TeMPEST – received an Education Award for Significant Achievement.