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Reaching for a Star

Hollin Meadows students connect with seafloor residents courtesy of mobile aquarium.

Even before she got to be one, Julia Monroe, by her own admission, “kind of knew a lot” about sea anemones. “I think they’re kind of cool,” she said.

But after the nine-year-old student at Hollin Meadows Elementary donned a cap covered with floppy tentacles and stood beside a catfish and a great blue heron, Lillian Lane, Julia’s fourth-grade classmate, said she’d gained a new perspective not only on Julia but on the sedentary resident of the briniest portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

“I thought she looked very weird,” said Lane, who acknowledged that her prior exposure to the creature had come from the Disney movie “Finding Nemo.”

The fourth and fifth grades of Hollin Meadows had just watched some of their classmates and teachers participate in a skit staged by “Ocean in Motion,” the outreach program of the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach. The skit explained how the different inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem adapted to their habitats and to one another.

“Eeeewww,” the students responded en masse, when Suzanne Mills, the skit’s master of ceremonies, explained that a classmate wearing the goggles and whiskers of a catfish found food by sucking mud from the bay floor.

But when Mill’s partner Anne Kiernan appeared as Madame Marina, the Amazing Mind Reader, to predict that the students would think more about conserving watersheds then signaled the end of the show by letting her balloon crystal ball abruptly deflate, the chorus was an anguished “Noooo.”

Teacher Jason Pittman = delighted his students by portraying a great blue heron, complete with long yellow legs and beak. “I think it helps make the presentation exciting for the kids,” he said of his star turn, adding that his fourth grade students were learning about watersheds for their SOL curriculum, but the topic was difficult to conceptualize. He said the hilarity of the skit, led by the energetic Mills and Kiernan was a great way to present many fundamental lessons that could appear as questions on the state exams.

This was exactly the reason that the PTA invited the aquarium unit, said Beth Winkleman, who organized the event. Science teacher Christina McCabe said activities like this “spark [students] to venture to learn a little bit more” about the subjects in their textbooks.

MILLS SAID THE MOBILE aquarium has evolved since it began touring the state years ago. “It started out as just a truck with tanks bolted to the side and it’s evolved into the great theatrical feat you see today.” Mills has driven the truck into some remote areas of Virginia. Students in the western mountains, she said, “are never going to see the ocean. That’s the most rewarding part of the job.”

Inside the dark truck, dogfish shark, crabs, and various fish swam through tanks that mimicked different habitats of the bay: sea grass, pier pilings on a mud flat, the deep sea and a shipwreck.

But Kiernan said touching some of the animals is often students’ favorite activity. Many students are familiar with creatures like the sea star from movies like “Finding Nemo,” but putting their finger on one brings the ocean floor out of the realm of fiction and makes students more likely to think about their connection to animals that seem to be in another world. “We touch on conservation,” Kiernan said, “but it’s through education. The sea star isn’t always a cartoon. It’s an animal you might find.”

“We have so many fun little stories about the animals,” Mills said. “And we say ‘fish poop’ as often as possible. They love that.”

In a science classroom, Kiernan presented a sea star, sea urchin, welk, hermit crab and a handful of mud snails to a fifth-grade class. “A hermit crab will try on a shell the way I might try on shoes at the mall,” she said, before bringing the crab around in a Tupperware container for each student to carefully touch. A few shook their heads, signaling that a look was all they needed. But most reached eagerly, and gingerly, into the water, then quickly pulled back their hands.

“We make them say, ‘Gross,’ quite often,” Kiernan said before meeting the class. “Then we correct them, ‘It’s not gross, it’s science.’”