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Back You are here: Home Features Events and Features Fort Fisher Aquarium Wilmington Students Connect with Science at Aquarium

Wilmington Students Connect with Science at Aquarium

 Coastal Champion Robin Sheppard holds a ball python and shares information about the reptile with the public during the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher’s annual Scales and Tails event. The high school students selected for the Coastal Champions program explore their interest in science and learn STEM skills.

Most teens don’t wake early on a Saturday morning excited to slog ankle deep in smelly marsh mud, clean trash along the Cape Fear River or cut and weigh bait fish to feed horseshoe crabs. Yet a dozen students from New Hanover High School and one from Laney High applied to do that and much more in the Coastal Champions program.
While other teens are headed to the mall or the beach for leisure time, the Coastal Champions make the most of their spring Saturdays. The students, ages 14 to 17, meet early, travel together to the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher and spend hours immersed in hands-on activities, exploring the natural world and developing skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The Aquarium’s Coastal Champions program is in its second year and receives funding from Connect a Million Minds, Time Warner Cable’s 5-year, $100 million philanthropic initiative addressing America’s declining proficiency in STEM.
Each week brings new adventures and learning opportunities to the Coastal Champions. They calculate ratios used to make salt water for Aquarium operations, weigh and measure fish food for optimal animal health, learn and share conservation facts with Aquarium visitors and more. Field trips are part of the Coastal Champions experience. One recent Saturday, the group hiked to the salt marsh, cast nets, and caught shrimp and blue crab to study the animals and their habitat. On another trip they cruised the Cape Fear River by boat, witnessing the down-river environmental impact of trash and increased salinity of the waterway. Gabriela Gutierrez knows there are other things she could be doing with her time, but said the Coastal Champions program is where she’d rather be.
“I enjoy every second I have been here,” said Gabriela. “I love the ocean and it is a great opportunity to help and learn at the same time.” The Coastal Champions share what they see and learn through blogging, videos and posts on the program’s Beach Reach Facebook page. “After spending a morning at UNC-W, we learned that harbor seals are an important part of the ocean ecosystem, and are also great divers,” one post read. “They hold more oxygen in their hemoglobin than humans so they can stay underwater longer.” Aquarium educators work side-by-side with the students to pump up the fun and the learning. “We work hard to vary the experiences the students have and give them maximum exposure to STEM concepts,” said Jennifer Metzler-Fiorino, education curator at the Aquarium. “The Coastal Champions program cultivates an interest in marine science and offers ‘wow’ moments every week for the students.” Selection for the program is based on the teens’ strong interest in science and involvement in the New Hanover County Schools’ AVID program, which helps prepare students who qualify for additional help preparing for college. When the 2012 program ends in June, the Aquarium rewards three Coastal Champions for their commitment and involvement with paid summer internships. Stay tuned to and to follow the students’ stories of their marine experiences.