Rita Bell

Rita Bell

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the most captivating living museums in the country. Rita Bell, the aquarium’s education program manager, offers an introduction to this facility and the services that it offers to teachers.


The Monterey Bay Aquarium is unique in so many ways. Would you give us a little tour?

Monterey Bay Aquarium is at the end of Cannery Row in Monterey. What is currently the Monterey Bay Aquarium used to be the old Hovden Cannery. The exterior structure of the building itself is very, very similar to the old Cannery, and when you walk into the aquarium and you look up, you see exposed pipes and a lot of concrete, so it still has the feeling of an old cannery building.

The aquarium was designed with a novel idea that instead of just showing individual animals, as most of the other aquariums did, we would focus on habitats of the Monterey Bay—the rocky shore or the kelp forests or the sandy sea floor. The goal was to provide visitors with a view of the bay that only SCUBA divers had seen before.

As you walk toward the Near Shore Galleries, you see a huge two-story kelp forest, which is probably the grand experiment of the aquarium. Instead of looking down on the kelp forest from above, it is housed behind huge acrylic windows, and you can see it all, from the bottom up. Before this exhibit was built, nobody knew for certain whether kelp would grow in captivity at all. The exhibit contains about one third of a million gallons of seawater pumped directly from Monterey Bay, with giant kelp and beautiful rockfish, senoritas and many other fish swimming around as well as sea stars, anemones and other invertebrates.

Other exhibits in the Near Shore Galleries include the Monterey Bay Habitats exhibit, with deeper-water animals—large sharks and rays and animals you would find in the sandy sea floor. This tank holds about two-thirds of a million gallons of water in kind of a figure eight shape. The shape of the exhibit provides a long glide path for many of the larger sharks. We also have an aviary with shorebirds that have been injured and have been taken care of–all kinds of wonderful animals with long beaks and long legs, who poke around in the sand looking for little tidbits to eat. The next big area would be our Rocky Shore area and our touch pool, where you can get close up looks at giant green sea anemones and hermit crabs. There’s a lot more.

Can you give an overview of your education programs?

The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans. We do that through our exhibits, our website, various programs at the aquarium and off-site.

We have three different types of education programs at the aquarium: programs for schools, programs for teachers and programs for teens. School Programs are for student groups that want to come to the aquarium for a field trip. In some cases, the students and teachers design a self-guided tour of the aquarium and in other cases, they participate in a hands-on lab experience or a guided tour led by aquarium educators.

We also design and deliver teacher workshops. The workshop can be anywhere from a few hours or a whole day to a week-long teacher institute that we offer during the summer. We also have programs for high school students: our Student Oceanography Club, a Young Women in Science program, and a student guide program.

The final portion of our program is our curriculum development. We spend time working with classroom teachers, and with other educators, to identify the curriculum activities and ideas that we want to communicate to kids.

How do you use the exhibits to provide a unique learning experience?

The animals are probably the number one hook. For so many visitors, their image of the ocean life is fish. But fish are just such a small portion of the total number of critters that live in the ocean. When groups come to the aquarium, we’re able to show them all sorts of wonderful and unbelievably shaped invertebrates. In our Discovery Labs they actually get up close to those animals, they get to touch them, feed them, and watch them move around. That’s a first-time experience for most of them. Once they get intrigued by the animals, then they really want to learn how to take care of them and what it is that they can do to make sure that those animals are safe out in the ocean and that they’ll be around for a long, long time. That’s our primary goal: we want to hook kids, we want to get them excited, and let them know about what’s going on in the ocean. And we also want to help them to figure out how they can help conserve the ocean.

How do teachers use this experience to help them teach their subjects?

One of the concepts that we look at is habitats. We take a look at the rocky shore, for example, and at an animal or a group of animals that live at the rocky shore. We examine the specific physical or behavioral characteristics that those animals have that enable them to survive in that specific habitat. And we talk about why the animals couldn’t survive in a different habitat–like he sandy shore or deep sea. We use that to reinforce the idea that in order to protect an animal, you have to protect its habitat.

Obviously, once the students get back to the classroom, they don’t have the opportunity to take a look at the sea cucumbers and sea stars and anemones that we have here at the aquarium. But they can go and investigate their local invertebrates—the spiders, roly-polys and other little bugs and snails and critters that are in their schoolyard and in their backyards. Hopefully their experience at the aquarium will spark their interest in the world around them. The careful observations they made at the aquarium will encourage their interest in the world around them. And by making careful observations in their own back yard, they can begin to know a little bit more about their own local ecosystem and their own local habitats.

One of the other focus areas is on the internal structures of the animals. We don’t open up the animals for kids to take a look at, but we do have some great models and digital images that we can share with them. It helps them to see some of the things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see about the internal structure of animals. That’s one of the science topics for our upper elementary grades here in California.

For our high school programs, we take a look at taxonomy and phylogeny, which are different topics that are pretty big sections of their regular life science curriculum. So after the classroom teachers introduce those topics in a general biology class, the students can come here and actually see the animals alive . They can get a better sense of, for example, why sea cucumbers are considered echinoderms and how they are related to sea urchins and sea stars?

Would you tell us about your relationship with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute?

The research institute is a sister organization to the aquarium. MBARI’s mission is to be a world center for advanced research and education in ocean science. We have a great collaboration with MBARI scientists, engineers and staff. A lot of what the people at MBARI have discovered has been incorporated into our exhibits and into our programs For example, in our exhibit, “Mysteries of the Deep,” we are able to share deep-sea animals that are so delicate that we wouldn’t have been able to exhibit them if not for what has been learned by the people at the MBARI. We also have a direct link to the MBARI Research Vessel. During the day, when the research vessels are out, visitors who can go to our auditorium and actually hear and see what is happening on the research vessels. Often the researchers will be exploring very deep waters using a remotely operated vehicle, and our visitors can see what the researchers see and ask them questions as they go along.

Isn’t one of the deepest underwater canyons in the world located in Monterey Bay?

Yes, and it’s also very close to land, so scientists can get on the research vessel and within just a very short period of time they’re out over very, very deep water. That’s a huge advantage because they can go out on day trips and conduct their research.

Do you find that girls get as excited about oceanography and ocean biology as boys do?

I think so. When you look around here at the staff it seems like there are a good number of women who are working here. It’s a pretty good balance. That old stereotype about girls not wanting to touch the animals because they might be slimy is an old passé stereotype. The girls are just as thrilled and excited about looking at the animals and getting to touch them and feed them as the boys are. I find that people are getting away from that old thought that science and math are more interesting to boys than they are to girls.

Why should teachers be interested in organizations like yours and the informal education possibilities offered there?

As a classroom teacher, there are a lot of wonderful things that you want to share with your students and wonderful opportunities that you want to provide for them, but you can’t always provide them within the context of the classroom. You just don’t have the facilities, you don’t have the time, you don’t have the equipment. By partnering with informal institutions, or even taking field trips to those informal institutions, you’re able to let the kids see for themselves different parts of the world. They’re able to actually see the animals, see the ocean, see what’s out there in a way that you can’t possibly provide for them in the classroom. It makes learning real. It makes learning fun. It helps the students connect with the world.

How does that help them learn the subjects they’re supposed to be learning?

I think it’s really easy to, especially with science, fall into the idea that if you know the terminology and you can spout back the connections on a test—you can describe the food web or you can describe the different habitats of the ocean—that you know them. I don’t think you really know an idea or a concept unless you’ve had some sort of experience with it. When I was growing up and went to school, I learned about the ocean, but it wasn’t actually until I came to the aquarium and participated as a teacher in one of the hands-on workshops that I began to understand the ocean. Once I started to understand, I began to really care about the ocean and began to care what happened to it. That experience, participating in those hands-on workshops, really helped me as a classroom teacher. For many of the physical science concepts I had to teach, like buoyancy and density, simple chemistry, I was then able to provide a context, a reason for learning those concepts. Once I was able to teach within the context that I cared about, within the context of the ocean, it made it much more real to the students. They became more involved in their learning and they did better.

I think that whatever you can be passionate about as a teacher, whether it’s the ocean, astronomy, art history or whatever, that passion is contagious, it hooks the student. That passion doesn’t just have to come from the teacher– students’ passions are contagious, too. The aquarium is just one place to discover your passion.

Doesn’t your website capture much of what’s going on at the aquarium?

Yes. One of the nice things about the site is that it focuses on the different exhibits and lets you know what it is that you can see. There are sections that will actually take you through the different habitats of the kelp forest and the sandy sea floor and the rocky shores. Then we have our web cams – the ones that look in on the penguins and the kelp forest in real time.

What are your website addresses?

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is www.montereybayaquarium.org and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is www.mbari.org.

If teachers are interested in your programs, how do they contact you?

E-mail is best: schoolprograms@mbayaq.org.

Thank you.



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