Lessons with deep meaning

15th March 2013 at 00:00
An education programme at Deep Sea World is hooking children and making waves, as Douglas Blane discovers

It's the oldest profession on the planet," says Clare Buttrick, the new visitor services and education manager at Deep Sea World, Scotland's national aquarium in North Queensferry. "We used to travel from town to town telling stories in exchange for room and board."

Times have changed but the storyteller's ability to weave facts into magic that sticks in the mind is just as valuable today. "We've launched our new programme for schools," Clare says. "It's designed to be even more active and engaging for youngsters."

The age of the average visitor to Deep Sea World is striking. Toddlers and their parents are everywhere, entranced by the fish and the gently flickering light in the transparent tunnel, where 1,500 marine animals float, swim and wriggle in a million gallons of water.

"Fish are soothing to watch," says one young mum, as a shoal of mackerel moves effortlessly overhead. "It's the way they travel through water. It seems so relaxed."

Not all the fish are soothing at first sight, though. The unmoving eyes and wide mouth packed with teeth of the aquarium's largest, oldest and most ferocious-looking animal create frissons of fear in some visitors as she swims past, separated by centimetres of plastic from human flesh.

But Tinkerbell is docile, says David Crawford, a recently qualified marine biologist and one of the education team. "She's a sand tiger shark, one of the few species here that aren't native to the seas around Britain. She eats small fish and sea creatures. A lot of aquariums hold them because they look scary but aren't."

The centrepiece of the new education programme is a set of one-hour workshops called My Fish, Clare says. "These are hands-on and enquiry-led. We have designed separate sessions for three age groups: Primary 3-4, Primary 5-7 and Secondary 1-3. We'll also provide sessions for older pupils on request."

A My Fish session starts with a simple question to pupils: what is a fish? "They make a list of the qualities they think a fish needs. Then we go out to the aquarium and look at how different species move, eat and defend themselves. The variety is fascinating. We keep the children interested and active, with lots of call and response, open questions and guiding them to the answers."

Back in the Deep Sea World classroom, pupils cement their new knowledge with a creative activity. "They design their own fish and the younger ones make them into little hats they can photograph or take home. We end with a short session on safety, so youngsters learn that the sea is beautiful but it can be dangerous."

Partnering with a local school - Alexander Peden Primary and Nursery in Harthill - has helped to hone the new sessions, so they work well for pupils and teachers, she explains. "For the youngest learners - the nursery and Primary 1-2 - we have Junior Explorers. We have many different habitats here - from rainforests to Scottish rock pools and the Amazon to the deep sea. So we take them on a role-playing adventure around the aquarium.

"When we're going to the rock pool they have to pull on their wellies. Down in the tunnel they need scuba gear. It's a fun way of engaging them with the different environments and getting them thinking about animal adaptations and how they compare with what humans have to do. We need suncream in the desert, for instance, but animals that live there don't. Why's that?"

A day at Deep Sea is more fun than school, says Katarina MacInnes (P5) from Crieff Primary. "You wander around and learn stuff. I've learned that 25 per cent of marine life lives in coral reefs. I like it here, even though I'm scared of fish."

"The best bit for me was the seals," says her friend Sophie Gibson (P5), from Dunbar Primary. "They come really close to you and roll in the water and do tricks."

Deep Sea World is a better option for mums and dads than the cinema, says Sophie's mum, Samantha Gibson. "It's cheaper if you book online and we all get to chat. It's interactive. The children learn and they have fun as well."

"We enjoy diving holidays," says Katarina's mum, Mirela MacInnes. "So the tunnel, surrounded by fish, was the best part for me. I'm not sure I'd enjoy swimming with the sharks here, though - I'm a warm water diver."

The skills of storytelling can bring any subject to life, Clare says. "Before coming here I did historical interpretation with museums and schools in Ireland. Telling a story sounds simple. But doing one for the first time to 300 people can be nerve-racking. It's about knowing the story inside out and gauging your audience. When it's done well, it works with everyone - from nursery children to octogenarians."

Education at Deep Sea World: bit.lyXZVQEM. Diving with sharks: bit.lyQnW1IH

FAST FACTS FROM THE DEEP SEA

- An acrylic shell 6.5 centimetres thick separates visitors from one million gallons of water and 1,500 creatures, including crabs, lobsters, fish and sharks.

- All the creatures are native to the seas around Britain, except for the stingray and the larger sharks.

- The largest animal is 28-year-old, 10-foot-long Tinkerbell, a sand tiger shark.

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