Primary teachers in the Splash Zone Teacher Institute investigate the rocky shore habitat by observing tide pool organisms

Recipient: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Grant: Museums for America - Engaging Communities

Pictured:Primary teachers in the Splash Zone Teacher Institute investigate the rocky shore habitat by observing tide pool organisms.

Project Contact:
Mary Whaley
Teacher Programs Manager



I feel very fortunate that we can provide tools, resources, and connections with peers to assist teachers in becoming the educators they want to be. Our programs have allowed them to enrich their classrooms, engage students, and transform the seeds we've given them into entire new gardens.

—Mary Whaley, Teacher Programs Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Since 1986, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has provided professional learning opportunities to nearby teachers. During that time the aquarium’s educational programs have evolved to respond to the state’s changing demographics. A quarter of California’s student population today is English language learners. Schools in the districts near the aquarium implemented programs to help these students become more proficient English speakers—at the expense of other curriculum, such as science. According to the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, only about 10 percent of elementary students in California experience science instruction that regularly engages them in the practices of science. Research has shown that most students decide whether they are interested in sciences by the time they leave middle school. Positive classroom interactions during this time make them feel that they are capable of doing science, and that motivation carries into high school and college.

To supplement this limited exposure to science and to prepare students for comprehensive and rigorous science programs in middle and high school, the Monterey Bay Aquarium developed teacher training programs aimed at enhancing teachers’ knowledge and ability to teach science and other subjects using the ocean as a theme. 

Enhancing Science Curricula and Integrating Ocean Conservation

In 2010, the aquarium sought to refocus and expand its professional development programs. With a grant from IMLS, the aquarium added two year-long teacher institutes annually to the three already offered annually, during the three years of the grant. Each institute is geared for teachers of different age groups, from pre-K to high school. The aquarium recruited and enrolled teachers from its formal project partner, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, and six neighboring districts.

The institutes were designed to begin with a weeklong session in the summer followed by three, day-long sessions throughout the school year. They provided tools and resources for teachers to create and implement project-based and inquiry-based learning experiences for their students and to integrate ocean science and ocean conservation into their curricula. The content focused on science concepts identified in the state and national science education standards, and by the American Association for the Advancement of Science Benchmarks. Each institute focused on implementing hands-on inquiry activities, engaging students in outdoor science experiences at local coastal and marine environments, integrating language arts and English as a second-language techniques, and utilizing science notebooks. The institutes also incorporated student-level conservation actions.

In addition, all teachers were encouraged to participate in the aquarium’s online professional community, where teachers can network online with their colleagues about their projects’ successes and roadblocks through wikis, blogs, and mentor connections. Most participating teachers also received customized onsite coaching by an aquarium educator throughout the academic year.

Utilizing Technology and Instilling a Sense of Place

In its teacher institutes, the aquarium introduced science projects that helped both educators and students develop a sense of place within their community. Staff members observed that when people feel connected to a place, they are more likely to care about conservation. For these teachers, the Monterey Bay was their place. Teachers were introduced to curriculum from a local perspective through field based experiences, learning about California’s Rocky Shore, Kelp Forest, and Sandy Shore. The aquarium developed 75 percent of institute curricula to be flexible and translatable across any habitat—ocean, forest, beach, or schoolyard. Programs examined how human actions affect their “place”—oceans, local environment, grasslands, lakes, rivers, and more.

A well-received component of the teacher institutes was the technology integration, where teachers learned how to use technology in authentic ways to enhance science education and engage students. Before participating in the program, many teachers were unsure how to use technology in science education beyond applications and games. The institute curriculum demonstrated how they can engage students in social networking during projects with online platforms like MyBigCampus and Edmodo, as well as how to use technology to communicate ideas clearly in presentations. Instead of science reports or posters, teachers learned they could direct students to use technology to create public service announcements or movies that are more compelling. The aquarium purchased iPads that teachers could borrow, reducing the challenges that many districts face in affording and providing access to new technology. Teachers also had access to one-on-one technology coaching by the aquarium’s education technology manager when they reserved equipment to use in their classrooms.

Providing Effective Lessons

Teachers who completed the aquarium’s institutes said that they felt more capable and prepared to do authentic science projects. Before, most of their classroom projects were models, posters, and research sessions; now, they felt comfortable doing science in the field with students. Elementary school teachers who did not have science expertise and felt hesitant due to lack of science emphasis at the elementary level also gained confidence in teaching. The institutes provided volumes of curricula, classroom resources, equipment, and books to support their lessons.

More than 90 percent of teachers indicated that the institute had provided ideas on how to incorporate conservation issues into their teaching. At the end of the year, over half of the teachers reported that their students were more engaged, enthusiastic, and excited learning science in this way. One teacher said of the development program, “This institute showed me that there are so many different ways that the different disciplines of science are interconnected and how we as instructors can help the students draw those connections.”

Through this project, the Monterey Bay Aquarium provided new tools, skills, and support to 472 teachers through 15 year-long teacher institutes, and these teachers, in turn, engaged approximately 57,150 students. Building on these results, the aquarium will continue expanding its professional development programs to help even more students develop a connection to the local environment and gain the basic science and critical thinking skills necessary to be effective citizens and ocean stewards.

Museums for America