Aquatic Academy Isn't Kid Stuff

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"ATTENTION," reads a sign at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., "Sharks Ahead."

Intended to titillate as much as to warn, the sign is aimed at the traditional aquarium audience, children.

And on this cool, clear Southern California evening in early February that audience is well represented. A boisterous group of sixth graders from a local middle school is at the aquarium for a sleepover that will include pizza, a tour, movies and of course, lots of buzzing over the frolicking sea lions and circling sharks at this, the country's fifth-largest aquarium.

Adjacent to the sign, in a one-story, wood-paneled building not far from the "shark lagoon," a different group of visitors gathered.

As the children's laughter echoes from outside, 35 adults, most of them 50 and older, sit in a classroom, listening attentively to Richard Somerville, professor emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and a specialist in climate change. Standing behind a lectern, he is discussing a slide showing what he calls "the most famous graph in the history of earth science," the Keeling Curve, named for the chemist Charles D. Keeling, who was the first to measure the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over time.

Professor Somerville had driven to Long Beach to talk about Keeling, his curve and the science behind climate change not to graduate students, policy makers or academic colleagues but to the Aquatic Academy, a continuing education program that attracts mostly older adults.

"It's good for my brain," said Ken Holt, 69, of Long Beach, a retired stagehand in the theater and film industries, explaining why he came out on a Wednesday night to contemplate Keeling's Curve. "And it's good to be here among like-minded people."

Professor Somerville's hourlong talk, "Coping With Climate Change: The Scientific Case for Urgency," is the first in a three-week series of lectures. Each is delivered by a well-regarded specialist in climate change. The second one will be on retreating ice, with Eric Rignot, a University of California, Irvine, scientist who has spent extensive time in Antarctica.

Clearly, this is not a typical program for those near or past retirement age, the kind commonly offered at local libraries or community centers in which a local author promoting a book delivers a brief and breezy monologue and answers a few questions before everyone heads to the dessert table for coffee and cookies.

At the Aquatic Academy, there are handouts and required reading (copies of a half-dozen academic papers with titles like "Acceleration of the Contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets to Sea-Level Rise" are passed around the room at lectures by Professors Somerville and Rignot). There is homework; there is, most notably, engagement. As Professor Somerville gets deeper into the data on climate change, audience members scribble notes furiously. Gray heads tilt forward in anticipation of his next slide.

In the front row, beaming, is Jerry Schubel, the president and chief executive of the aquarium. The Aquatic Academy is his baby, and it took a while to nurture. Opened in 2003, a year after Dr. Schubel arrived, it was aimed at students and teachers.

The program sputtered until about two years ago, when the decision was made to focus on older adults. It worked. Last year, two four-week "semesters" were offered. One in the spring on extreme weather-related events attracted 34 participants. Another in the fall on how California is addressing ocean-related issues drew 32. Responding to demand, the aquarium added a third, three-week winter session, the one led by Professor Somerville, to a sold-out group of 35.

The academy is part of an effort to transform the Aquarium of the Pacific into a serious adult-learning environment from a destination for school or family day trips. That effort includes a separate series of lectures, with topics as various as the natural history of Long Beach and the yellow-eyed penguins of New Zealand, as well as such cultural events as a production by the Long Beach Ballet called "Guardians" that will be staged in November, described as "inspired by the ocean and the aquarium."

The aquarium opened in 1999 on Rainbow Harbor in downtown Long Beach. It covers a five-acre site, with a three-level building that houses 11,000 ocean animals, representing nearly 500 species.

But having patrons ooh and aah at the exotic sea creatures is not the ultimate goal.

"We would like to think we're creating a different kind of aquarium," said Mr. Schubel, an oceanographer who was dean of the Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook University on Long Island before coming to Long Beach. "The fish are the bait to get people in here to explore important issues."

According to Nette Pletcher, director of conservation education for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Aquarium of the Pacific is one of the first in the United States to offer such a challenging program for older adults. "It's awesome that they're putting resources into that and giving people who are involved in real scientific research a platform," said Ms. Pletcher, whose organization is based in Silver Spring, Md.

While pointing out that the association's 221 member zoos and aquariums "often cater to youth from pre-K to high school," Ms. Pletcher said that older people were certainly not a group overlooked by these institutions, because they could be an important source of volunteers and donations. Still, she said the success of the more demanding, classlike format of the Aquatic Academy impressed her.

"That's really interesting and exciting, that all these people are seeking out this kind of experience," she said.

It also raises the question: If someone is so interested in these subjects, why not simply take a college course?

"It's cheaper and a lot easier to do this," says Bruce Perry, 58, who attended Professor Somerville's lecture. Mr. Perry teaches oceanography, geology and earth science at California State University, Long Beach. He said he attended the academy to help stay current in the field. "This is a great opportunity to hear these amazing people in an informal setting," he said.

Corinne Monroe of nearby Seal Beach, a self-described "tree hugger and whale hugger," said she enrolled in the academy because of her passion for environmental causes. Ms. Monroe, who declined to give her age, said she was a charter volunteer at the aquarium, adding, "If you stop doing stuff like this, you become a couch potato."

The spring session of the Aquatic Academy at the Aquarium of the Pacific begins April 25. The theme is the "Integration of Art and Science to Enhance Environmental Communication." Cost for the four-week session is $50. For more information, visit aquariumofpacific.org/events/info/aquatic_academy.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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