RALEIGH The North Carolina Aquariums are preparing to offer more opportunities for school children across the state to experience and engage with the sights, sounds and environments of land and sea. The Aquarium Scholars Project, an educational outreach program, is designed to assist schools with significant low income student populations. The project helps fund their aquarium educational experiences though site visits to an aquarium or through aquarium staff traveling to the school and presenting educational programs.”The North Carolina Aquariums offer one of the largest informal science education programs in the state. The new Aquarium Scholars initiative will expand access to these offerings for at-risk students in Title I schoolsan effort that can help close achievement gaps in both science and life skills for thousands of students across the state,” said Brenda Berg, president of NC BEST. Title I schools are schools with large concentrations of low-income students that receive supplemental federal funds to assist in meeting students’ educational needs. Typically, 40-80% of their students receive free or reduced-price lunches. There are 1,440 such schools in North Carolina.The Scholars Project is a joint partnership between the N.C. Aquariums, N.C. Department of Public Instruction, N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, N.C. State University Friday Institute, N.C. Aquarium Society and a consortium of friends. “Our aquariums in North Carolina are celebrating their 40th anniversary, but they have always operated as a partnership with the State of North Carolina and the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The Aquarium Society is a private non-profit organization that handles memberships and the gift shops,” said Jay Barnes, development director for the Aquarium Society. The North Carolina Aquariums at Roanoke Island, Fort Fisher and Pine Knoll Shores have undergone capital renovations within the last decade. In addition, Jeanette’s Pier was built. While educational programming as always remained a focus, a steady decline of school visits have occurred in recent years. The Aquariums’ total public visitation stands at 1.2 million annually; however, school visitations have steadily declined from 70,000 children in 2008 to 50,000 in 2016. “While we still were experiencing visits from over 50,000 students, we noticed a downward trend of school classes. The majority of schools in North Carolina were feeling the squeeze of educational budgets which decreased field trips on the priority list,” said Barnes. “Wealthy schools from affluent areas or schools with strong PTA’s funding the trips were able to make the visits to the aquariums. However, we saw a great decline in visits from rural counties and schools with lower income families. An entire group of people in Eastern North Carolina were being left out, and we thought, ‘what can we do?” he added. The private sector of corporate and individual donors stepped forward willing to fund visits to the aquariums or visits by aquarium staff to low-income, Title I schools. Currently, the Aquarium Society is using 2017 to fundraise and has opened a website for those wishing to donate or inquire about the programs. In 2018, the Aquarium Scholars Project plans to award several mini-grants to schools. To date, the Aquarium Society has raised $175,000 for the project. “We are hoping to bridge the achievement gaps and make a strong difference in science and technology education as well as animal and ocean science,” said Barnes.Programs available at the aquariums and through the outreach opportunities are constantly evolving to ensure the programs match the science standards taught in the classroom. Examples of programs include discovering the River Basins of North Carolina, Sea Turtle Trails, Green Energy and Feathered Friends. “The mission of the N.C. Aquariums is to inspire an appreciation and conservation for North Carolina’s aquatic environment. All of the projects we do come back to this mission. We are even showing school children they can have a career in marine science, and that there is a real application for science and science education,” Barnes said. More information on the Aquarium Scholars Project can be found by visiting www.ncaquariumsociety.com.
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