By Jeffery Whitfield
Corridors were empty along the second floor of the Georgia Aquarium as recently as the end of November, but Brian Davis knew change was coming. And it won't be long before students and teachers will notice the difference.
In January the Georgia Aquarium will open the Learning Loop, an educational arm of the facility for children and teens.
School group visits will begin Jan. 17 and two Clayton County schools -- Lake Ridge Elementary and Brown Elementary -- already have been approved for visits.
“Every grade level has requested a trip,” said Robin Dease, the bookkeeper at Lake Ridge Elementary. Teachers and administrators from the school would accompany children on trips.
Dease said students are interested in learning about science at the aquarium and hope to take trips in February and March.
A total of more than 70,000 students are expected to experience the Learning Loop each year. Program costs are $9.50 per child.
School groups have a choice of picking two time slots for visitations. A morning session is offered from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and an afternoon session is offered from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.
“We want students exposed to conservation, to see the importance of research and (its) connection to aquatic ecosystems and have a lot of fun doing it,” said Davis, director of education for the Georgia Aquarium. Located in downtown Atlanta, the $290-million facility opened in November. Aquarium Benefactor Bernie Marcus said the facility would be a venue for tourism, education, environmental preservation and veterinary studies.
The Learning Loop did not open in November because many schools are on holiday break and planners wanted to introduce the area in January when schools were in session, Davis said.
Unlike the aquarium's main exhibit areas that are open to the general public, the Learning Loop will be completely separate and be dedicated solely for use by students and teachers. The Learning Loop makes up twenty-five percent of the aquarium's total space.
Separating the general public and student areas enhances the experience for both groups, allowing visitors room to explore exhibits and giving students a chance to focus on lessons in front of them, according to Davis.
“(Students) get a tour that (many) don't get access to,” he said.
The Learning Loop features four programs: Deepo Detectives, for pre-kindergarten through grade five, Aquatic Adventures, for kindergarten through eighth grade; Eco-Explorers, for grades three through eight; and Sea.S.I., for grades nine through 12.
Deepo Detectives provides students a chance to act as detectives who must crack a case. The program is aimed at teaching students about aquatic animals using cooperative learning strategies.
In Aquatic Adventures, students are guided through three galleries on the Learning Loop to explore freshwater and marine environments. They include the freshwater, coral reef and research galleries.
The freshwater gallery focuses on the river ecosystem, the coral reef gallery examines the reef as a living organism, and the research gallery is aimed at presenting current research topics in an interactive way.
The Eco-Explorers program allows students to participate in hands-on activities that introduce them to concepts of scientific inquiry, allowing them to interact with animals and collect data for analysis.
The Sea.S.I. program demonstrates how the aquarium operates and includes an overview of the facility. Students then participate in two lessons. Teachers pick lessons from a list that includes Animal Husbandry, which focuses on care and maintenance of the aquarium's aquatic animals; Research and Conservation, which includes the aquarium's current research and conservation initiatives; Aquatic Engineering, which focuses on aquarium life support systems; and Aquatic Appetites, which examines dietary and nutritional needs of aquarium animals.
Students will be able to enter the aquarium from a second-floor entrance on Baker Street that is separate from one that the general public uses.
After entering the facility, children will be able to place their belongings in baskets. A room near the entrance provides an area where students can eat lunch they bring and watch 30-minute videos about topics such as aquatic ecosystems. A hall connects the entrance to the main exhibit area.
Students will then be able to enter the Georgia Explorer exhibit, a display of the state's coastal animals.
At that area students will be able to view tanks of freshwater fish. Students will also get a chance to enter their zipcodes on a large display to learn about watersheds near their homes, Davis said. Models of organs from North Atlantic Right Whales, which live off the Georgia coast in winter, will also be on display.
“They will be there so students can compare the whale's organ size to theirs,” Davis said.
Near the whale display will be a large room with aquariums featuring other aquatic species such as sea horses.
As students leave the Georgia Explorer exhibit, they will be able to select post cards, label them and mail them at an area that appears like an elongated desk.
Adjacent to that station is a River Scout exhibit, which features a model river.
Students will be able to enter the exhibit, and from their vantage point on the second level, view aquatic lifeforms in a freshwater forest. Activities such as interactive games may also be played.
“We'll talk about freshwater ecosystems and how the exhibits are designed,” Davis said.
Other areas students will be able to explore consist of a hallway with interactive murals, a research gallery and the aquarium's room where water filtration systems are installed. Adjacent to the filtration system will be a laboratory where students can watch scientists grow lifeforms such as jellyfish.
“One of our big goals is to expose students to research so they don't think they have to leave the state of Georgia to pursue a career in aquatic sciences,” he said.
In another room, entire classes of students will be able to step on a scale and compare how close their collective weight comes to that of a whale. At a “confiscation station” students will be able to role play as federal agents and learn concepts such as how aquatic species are illegally smuggled in and out of the U.S.
A sponsored admission program is available for schools that need outside resources to participate in the aquarium's educational programs. Applications will be available in January.
In addition to programs for students there are professional development opportunities for teachers. Offered in the summer, the programs will feature field experiences at locations along watersheds.
Courses include Creeks to the Coast, which focuses on tracing a river system from headwaters to the coast and water-related issues, and Rivers to Reef, which allows teachers to wade into water and learn about watershed water quality and aquatic ecosystems.
A 30-member committee consisting of teachers, administrators, university professors as well as representatives from the Georgia State Board of Education, federal agencies and several corporations developed the aquarium's educational program over a two-and-a-half year period.
Education lessons are aligned with Georgia Performance Standards and meet national education standards.
For more information, call (404) 581-4000 or visit www.georgiaaquarium.org.