Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 17, 2023

Tennessee Aquarium taps eco-friendly vehicles for community engagement

Community engagement educators Stephanie Soto, Shawn Brim and Claudia Mendez-Marti pose with the Tennessee Aquarium’s new education outreach vehicles. - Photographs provided

The Tennessee Aquarium’s education team is hitting the road and bringing the natural world to classrooms and communities across the region with the help of a pair of environmentally friendly additions to its outreach fleet.

The new Toyota RAV4 hybrids will ensure the aquarium can continue reaching students around the Southeast while reducing its environmental impact. Wrapped with vinyl decals showcasing some of the saltwater and native freshwater species exhibited at the aquarium, the pair of vehicles offer a new face to a program that has been a cornerstone of the institution’s interaction with the community since opening in 1992.

Education and outreach have always been central pillars of the Tennessee Aquarium’s mission, but the pandemic necessitated a shift in thinking for how best to approach meeting the needs of students and teachers, especially in historically underserved communities, says Natali Rodgers, the aquarium’s director of learning and evaluation.

“We wanted to refocus our efforts toward outreach programs that specifically target communities that – even before the pandemic – had less ability to visit the aquarium in person. For us to continue to do what we do for years to come, we have to make sure everyone is represented at the table.”

For more than 30 years, the Tennessee Aquarium has offered free admission to all students from Title 1 Schools. But, by also presenting hands-on science programming to students who might have less access to the aquarium, outreach educators broaden the aquarium’s impact and inspire students who might not have considered pursuing careers in biology or conservation science.

Aiding in that effort are two community engagement educators who are fluent in both English and Spanish.

All the Tennessee Aquarium’s outreach programs are state standards-aligned. While educators often present programs in traditional educational settings, they also serve many community centers, libraries and other venues throughout the region.

The aquarium’s increasing investment in outreach programming is making an impact on students in regional low-income schools. In 2022, the aquarium presented 129 outreach programs, reaching more than 8,200 individuals, including more than 4,800 students at Title I schools.

While its hands-on programming has accelerated, the Tennessee Aquarium also provides digital-only alternatives in the form of virtual outreach programs. These remote presentations allow teachers around the country to take advantage of the aquarium’s expertise in biology, ecology and conservation science.

Even as it doubles down on external outreach, the Aquarium also is expanding its on-site programming with new and returning offerings, such as guided tours and summer camps.

Title I schools can receive up to three free programs per school each semester.

Source: Tennessee Aquarium