Night at the Aquarium

You know how they used to peddle orange juice by saying, “It isn’t just for breakfast any more?” That’s how I feel about informal science education. No, silly: not that it isn’t just for breakfast any more. That it isn’t just for kids any more. (Unlike Trix, silly rabbit, which are just for kids.)

I thought about this when I attended a members-only event held last week at the New England Aquarium (NEAq) in Boston. It was called Fin & Tonic. Fin & Tonic was also the name of the signature drink that evening. (It was blue.)

I went to my first after-hours museum event about five years ago, at the California Academy of Sciences, and ever since then I have noticed more and more museums jumping on this awesome bandwagon.

Adults-only is the way to go when it comes to museums, if you ask me. I love my kids, but they make it very difficult to enjoy an information-dense venue like an aquarium. It’s amazing how different the exhibits look—and how much you can learn from them—when you don’t have to rush around trying to cram it all in before a meltdown.

Why are sea dragons so cool? Evolution! I am not alone in thinking so. At Fin & Tonic, I overheard many other parents expressing their pleasure about how nice it was to be able to look at the fish—instead of doling out Cheerios, chasing after escapee toddlers, or reminding a child not to bang on the glass.

And so I got to spend about two hours, drink in hand, wandering from tank to tank in relative peace. As I sipped and strolled, I got to thinking about what wonderful resources aquariums and zoos are. I mean, here were hundreds of adults spending an evening taking in and talking about the natural world. Even without stopping to read a single sign, the attendees couldn’t help but be more informed and appreciative of nature after spending some quality time with sea dragons, cuttlefish, and, yes, an octopus. (An octopus, I learned, named Elvira.)

Those of us sipping our Fin & Tonics (Fins & Tonic?) didn’t have to read the signs by NEAq’s tanks—but we wouldn’t have been disappointed if we had. While they are somewhat complicated, they are written at a level that adults can appreciate and learn from. Not to put too fine a point on it, the signs at NEAq are good—and you know that I’m a stickler about scientific accuracy in museum signage!

Take this one, for example.  It’s clear, it’s accurate, and it lacks any sop to human vanity! Kudos to NEAq for putting us in our place, as just another tetrapod. (Albeit just another tetrapod that has managed to destroy or alter most other animals’ habitats thus making zoos and aquariums necessary…but that’s a subject for another post.) I also love the note about the role of fossils up in the top right, which says:

How do researchers know how long ago a species lived? They rely on fossils. The dates on this phylogeny show the oldest fossil found for each species. Some species may have been around for millions of years before then, and the dates could change if older fossils are discovered.

In just one paragraph, the importance of fossils and the possibility for revision based on new evidence are established.

Why are cnidarians so cool? Evolution! Will every visitor absorb the details? Will they come away with a subtle appreciation of the significance of the unresolved coelacanth-lungfish-tetrapod polytomy, or even a new-found understanding  that “fish” is a paraphyletic group? Of course not! But that doesn’t really matter—what matters is that the correct information is there, so that those who are interested can learn more, and those who want to take only a quick glance won’t come away with a misconception.

I learned a lot about marine biology from the Fin & Tonic event. But I was also reminded of the importance of aquariums—and other sites for informal science education, like museums and zoos and parks—in promoting the public understanding and appreciation of science. Most of us go to school for somewhere between thirteen and twenty years, but we live (knock wood) for eighty or more. It is in large part thanks to informal centers of education that we keep on learning in the sixty plus years that we’re out of the classroom. So when you’re thinking about ways to support and advance science education, don’t forget your local zoo, museum, and aquarium. Elvira will greet you with open arms.

Elvira WAS flirting with me. Without a doubt. Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a Misconception Monday or other type of post? Have a fossil to share? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an email or shoot me a tweet @keeps3.