Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center: Making Environmental Science Real for Students

Zoey Walker enjoys being a force of nature as she generates water waves in a plastic tray partially filled with sand. The class experiment helped the Princess Anne Middle School student imagine herself one day helping make coastal communities more resilient to major storms and rising seas.

Soaking Up Science Program

The wave activity was part of the multi-pronged Soaking Up Science program sponsored by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Supported by a three-year $90,200 grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, the initiative annually gives 1,000 Virginia Beach City Public Schools middle school students hands-on insight into local watershed issues and the impact of rising seas.

Funding came from the Community Fund for the Environment, Inge Family Fund for the Environment, William Thomas Reilly III Fund, Barbara Upton Wilson Charitable Fund and unrestricted funds administered by the community foundation.

To demonstrate the impact water can have on communities, Zoey’s seventh-grade classmates took turns stacking colorful blocks to build miniature beach houses. They then tried to protect the structures as Zoey agitated the water with a small paddle. As waves whipped toward the sand, the water won as sand was sucked out and “homes” toppled.

“This is a really cool way for figuring out multiple solutions... I love science." – Zoey

“The wave exercise really opened my eyes,” says Andrew Campbell, 13, who was part of Zoey’s team. “The waves were just destroying the house. It was like, ‘Oh, we really need to fix this!’”

For Soaking Up Science, Virginia Aquarium outreach specialists lead hands-on activities twice a year in seventh-grade classes at Princess Anne, Bayside and Old Donation middle schools. Students also take field trips to the aquarium for hands-on activities such as testing water. The culmination of the program is when students bring relatives to family night at the aquarium to share what they learned.

The activities reinforce lessons learned and give “students a chance to start thinking about the problems we face and allows them to realize they don’t have to sit back and wait for somebody else to fix them,” says Taylor Woodruff, an aquarium outreach educator. Some students are inspired to think of engineering careers while others plan to vote and have a voice in environmental policies.

Donna Abrams, an advanced life science teacher at Princess Anne, says teachers are thrilled to have the aquarium team supplement the lessons they teach.

“Students thrive on hands-on programs,” says Donna, who has taught for 25 years. “It’s nice for the Virginia Aquarium to bring supplies and activities to us and for the community foundation to fund it. We couldn’t do a lot of what we’re doing without this partnership.”

Photo by Glen McClure

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