Tennessee Aquarium hopes to grow new environmentalists, scientists

Tennessee Aquarium hopes to grow new environmentalists, scientists

July 15th, 2012 by Pam Sohn in News

Shellie Hampton, right, harvests beets with other students at Crabtree Farms during a weeklong teen summer camp hosted by the Tennessee Aquarium. The Tennessee Aquarium and Anna George won a national $10,000 fellowship award for conducting community projects to engage diverse audiences in habitat, water, and energy conservation.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Conservation lessons

• Monday was water quality day, spent at Renaissance Park and the Hiwassee River, collecting fish and water samples and learning about lab work and using animals as ecology indicators.

• Tuesday was food day, working at Crabtree Farms, touring Southside's local food companies learning how to use fresh, healthy, locally grown food in their own dinners.

• Wednesday was transportation and air quality day, learning how to compare efficiencies. The group also toured Chattanooga's water treatment plant and sewage treatment plant.

• Thursday was recycling and trash day, touring Rock 10, canoeing and cleaning up trash on Chattanooga Creek. Local experts gave the students one-on-one advice for the take-home projects.

• Friday was wildlife and biodiversity day with visits to the Conasauga River and a bird hike.

• Saturday was show and tell. The students gave presentations to their parents about what they learned before they headed home.

Source: The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute

Don't tell 19 high-schoolers who spent last week with Anna George that she's got a "Dr." in front of her name. They think she's way too much fun for that.

While the director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute waded ankle-deep into disgusting mud to sample water in the artificial wetlands at Renaissance Park, she grinned up at the teens.

"Science is glamorous," she called to them with a wry smile as she waved her arms to keep her balance and she worked to keep her Chaco sandals from being sucked off her feet.

And who else, the next day, could have gotten 19 busy-being-cool teens completely engrossed in a morning of digging beets out of a heat-baked field at Crabtree Farms?

"I loved the farm," said Lynn Fults, a rising senior at Red Bank High School. "That was a lot of fun."

George had hoped for just such reactions when she proposed a summer teen camp to immerse the young people in environmental issues - from water quality to farming to sewage treatment to recycling.

"This is the age I was when I really got into science," George said as the youngsters piled into two oversized vans for a trip to take more water samples and fish samples in the Hiwassee River near Reliance, Tenn.

"There's a lot of recent research out right now that indicates teenagers are the major drivers of conservation change," she said. "And they know a lot, but they are frustrated because they feel like they can't do more. So we thought, 'How can we give them the tools to be even better conservationists than they already are?'"

Because summer camps were very influential in shaping her own interests and future, George zeroed in on that goal. She applied for and won a $10,000 TogetherGreen Fellowship from the Audubon Society and Toyota for her first-ever week-long teen summer camp to explore conservation problems and solutions in Chattanooga.

"Anna is an environmental hero. She and the other TogetherGreen Fellows help people engage with nature," Audubon President David Yarnold said when the grant was announced in June. "We're pleased to give her a chance to invent the future."

Audubon and Toyota launched the TogetherGreen initiative in 2008 to foster environmental leadership and fund innovative conservation ideas. Across the country, George's camp was among 40 TogetherGreen proposals that were funded.

But the real winners may be the young people in the week-long summer camp, who not only realized they can take a direct role, but also began planning a project to take home with them.

Three-quarters of the teens in this first camp were from local schools: Red Bank, Hixson, Baylor, Boyd Buchanan, Cohutta - to name a few. But the other students were from Memphis, Winder, Ga., and Virginia.

George said the 19 were chosen based on their applications. Some were granted scholarships for the $700 tuition. Home base for the week of camp was a Baylor School dormitory.

Lily Benton, a 16-year-old Baylor student from Signal Mountain, said she found the program "really exciting" from the first day. She and 15-year-old River Dixon, of Cohutta, Ga., were enchanted with Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute biologist Bernie Kuhajda's description of how the five-inch logperch fish uses its "big snozz" nose to flip rocks up and look for water bugs to eat.

"That's so neat. Is that why it's [the nose] is so rough?" asked River, a rising junior who does an online school called Keystone National High School.

River, who also is a youth volunteer at the aquarium, already knows she wants to be a marine biologist.

"I really love to do the research with fish and to do the conservation with them because I think a lot of the things in the ocean are not known right now," River said. "If it was, we could do a lot better with conserving the life in it."

Deja McDuffie, a 15-year-old student at Chattanooga Leadership Academy, wants to be a neurosurgeon, but came to the camp because she sees many conservation problems she doesn't like, including species extinction and growing recycling needs.

"I wanted to come and see if there is something I can do about them," she said.

Justice Graves, an ApalacheeHigh School senior from Winder, Ga., found the camp by doing Internet research to find a summer camp that had to do with biology.

"When the Gulf oil spill happened, I really wanted to do something about it," she said. "I want to be an animal rehabilitator or a marine show person, like with dolphins.

"I thought it would be fun, but it's been like 10 times better than I thought it would be," she said.

George smiles when she overhears the students' talk.

"They all here because they interested in a particular conservation problem," George said. "And we're here to help them design conservation solutions than they can roll out when they get home."