First-grader Ella Waters reached her hand in among snails, crabs, mussels, and sea stars, quickly learning which were smooth and which were rough to the touch.
“It was really cool,” said the 6-year-old, who attends Horace Mann Laboratory School in Salem. “And I got to touch a snail’s body and touch a sea urchin.”
She and her 19 classmates didn’t have to travel to a nearby beach to find these sea creatures; educators from the New England Aquarium in Boston brought them right into the classroom.
The visit was part of an ongoing partnership between the Salem school district and the aquarium. The Classroom Coastal Connections program is a year-round, multigrade collaboration in 60 classrooms through all seven elementary schools in the Salem district.
The intensive collaboration is now unique to Salem, but the aquarium is also aiming to work with schools in the Boston district beginning this summer
The goal is to enhance learning in several subjects by bringing the ocean to the classroom, according to John Anderson, director of education at the aquarium.
“We live in this amazing world, and we often forget that even though many of our districts are right next to the ocean, we forget to use the ocean,” Anderson said. “We’re encouraging core skills like observation and measurement, [and] trying to foster those core skills embedded in the curriculum in relation to the animals.”
Since its 2009 launch, the program —
This year, the aquarium is working with Salem students in grades 1, 2, and 5. First-graders receive two tidepool outreach visits from aquarium educators. During the first visit, educators bring various sea animals into the classroom.
The second visit introduces the students to New England’s major coastal habitats, such as rocky shores, sandy beaches, and salt marshes. Students look for the same creatures in their native habitat.
Second-graders will take a trip to the aquarium in March. and educators there will visit classrooms prior to the trip to prepare students.
The educators use an interactive aquarium map to prepare students for the types of animals they’ll see,and share stories about the animals.
At the aquarium, students will take part in an activity focused on ecosystems, and then follow up with another classroom visit.
Grade 5 students have received at least two visits from aquarium educators to prepare them for outdoor field experiences to either Winter Island or Collins Cove, both located in Salem.
The students also will have a follow-up visit with an educator to help them understand what they saw during their excursions.
“Bringing this experience to the community is invaluable,” said Letty Kerai, a first-grade teacher at Horace Mann. “Some of the kids’ best writing exercises have come from these experiences, describing what they’ve seen, touched, and smelled . . . it invigorates the teachers and the students.”
Seton Wood, the Salem elementary school science coordinator, said science integration specialists who work within the Salem school district meet with aquarium advisers to discuss the program.
Wood said these students are getting to do hands-on activities that teach them about their surrounding community. Not all Salem youngsters get the chance to explore the seaside, even though it is so close.
The program is especially helpful for English Language Learning students, who make up 13 percent of students in the district, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Wood said.
These students “need a lot of hands-on and physical examples for them to make connections to things,” Wood said. “This program helps to do that.”
Students are not only fully engaged and excited during each aquarium session, but they’re expanding science knowledge, and increasing vocabulary as well.
Kerai said students participate in oral projects describing what they see in photographs taken of animals during classroom visits and ocean habitats during school outings.
“The knowledge of what they see at the different habitats is amazing,” Kerai said. “They’re so excited about what they can see and what they can touch. . . . It’s phenomenal hands-on learning for the kids.”
By completing assignments connected with ocean and aquarium visits, students are developing skills such as being able to describe, compare, and contrast sea animals and their habitats, Kerai said.
Robin Bagley, an aquarium educator who visited Kerai’s first-grade class at Horace Mann, said it is gratifying to see the students learn and make connections between animals and their environments.
“I like seeing the children and the excitement they have when they learn something,” Bagley said. “When you see those lines come together and the looks on their faces when they come up with connections . . . they’re really learning, and what you’ve been sharing with them has helped them reach that point.”
In addition, students are gaining respect for a valuable resource. “We’re teaching the next generation of ocean stewards,” Bagley said.
“When you start teaching young children to understand and respect animals and the ocean and what it means, they grow up with it. . . . These children love it and they love the animals and they have so much fun with it.”