Giving thanks to partners: NOAA Education and aquariums gather for 4th collaborative workshop

After a three-year hiatus due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, 19 aquarium educators and six NOAA staff came together in person once again for the fourth Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers (CELC) network workshop.

People stand and sit around a table, engaged in conversation. They are looking at a large sheet of paper that says "youth" and holding markers.

Lisa Kim, CELC Youth Engagement Co-Lead and Congressional Affairs Specialist for NOAA Education, facilitates a breakout group on youth engagement with various members of the CELC network at the 2022 CELC Workshop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (Image credit: Maggie Allen/NOAA)

From October 19-21, 2022, this group gathered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium offsite link in Monterey, California, to discuss priorities, activities, and steps forward for the CELC network, a consortium of 25 aquariums across North America that is coordinated by NOAA’s Office of Education.

Above everything else that stood out at the workshop was the gratitude towards this collaborative partnership that has provided mutual support over the last few tumultuous years.

“The strength of the NOAA CELC network comes from its people,” a workshop participant said. “Together we are stronger, smarter, and more inspired to provide an incredible educational experience for the millions of people we reach each year.”

Twenty-four people wearing name badges smile for a group picture while standing on a building that overlooks the ocean.
Credit: Athena Barrios, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Although the CELC network has always worked together to engage the public in protecting marine and coastal ecosystems, the group’s mission went beyond its official goal during the COVID-19 pandemic. In spring 2020, members met more frequently than usual to discuss the major challenges brought on by the pandemic, from supporting the mental health needs of their staff to providing quality virtual learning experiences, while still meeting the conservation and education missions of the aquariums. Overall, members relied on each other to stay afloat during those difficult times. Even with the high staff turnover and demands on their day jobs, these aquarium educators turned to each other for extra doses of “hope and perseverance,” as described in this 2021 story.

The strength of the NOAA CELC network comes from its people. Together we are stronger, smarter, and more inspired to provide an incredible educational experience for the millions of people we reach each year

CELC workshop participant

Although aquariums have since reopened and educators have mostly adjusted to their “new normal,” this collaborative partnership is stronger than ever, highlighted in the positive energy that exuded from the three-day workshop.

“Having met and getting to know the members of the network in person, I now feel that I have a network that I can lean on when needed and vice versa,” said Toby Plant of Ocean Wise offsite link. “Being around people that share such a strong passion for the work that we do was incredibly powerful, and I look forward to bouncing ideas and projects around in the months to come.”

Silhouette of a person standing in front of an aquarium tank filled with fish and bubbles.
Credit: Brianna Shaughnessy, NOAA

The official workshop began with an opening dinner reception at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and then participants spent the following two days networking and discussing the key priorities of climate literacy, seafood education, and youth engagement. Attendees broke out into groups brainstorming how to advance the youth engagement working group now that the activities from the 2021 virtual youth summit had wrapped up, and how to more effectively and equitably engage their institutions in building community resilience. Educators also discussed how to build capacity and create more professional development opportunities, how to best evaluate the group’s activities, and how to maintain the momentum gained from the time spent together in person. Above all else, the workshop strengthened the interpersonal bonds for both veteran and new members alike.

Benefits of networks like CELC can extend beyond the relatively small group of active members. Enhanced relationships and increased activities on key priorities can improve visitors’ experiences at these institutions, empower youth to take environmental actions in their communities, and implement effective climate and seafood messaging and programs across North America. With NOAA’s help facilitating conversations, convening the members, and relaying agency-created science and resources to these non-profits, the power of the CELC network and similar partnerships can have ripple effects to other institutions and to communities throughout the continent.

“This was a very productive meeting,” Christos Michalopoulos, Deputy Director of NOAA Education and CELC network lead said. “We were able to identify our top priorities that will guide the implementation of our CELC strategic plan over the next couple of years and to reconnect in person after the pandemic. We are deeply thankful to Monterey Bay Aquarium for being such a wonderful host and for offering us the perfect venue for this workshop.”