New York Aquarium teens create lesson plans about environmental issues for classrooms in the Coney Island area

As one of the oldest continually operating aquariums in the country, New York Aquarium offsite link has a long history of connecting New Yorkers to the ocean and its amazing creatures. This institution is one of 25 aquariums and marine science education centers across North America that make up the Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers (CELC) network. Together this network engages the public in protecting coast and marine ecosystems and work on shared priorities, including youth engagement.

Three people are standing outside participating in a beach clean-up. The person on the right is holding a garbage bag open while the other two people are holding an object grabber. The person on the left is putting something into the garbage back with their gloved hand. In the background, there are trees and a body of water.

New York Aquarium teens participate in a beach clean-up as part of Coney Island’s It’s My Estuary Day. (Image credit: New York Aquarium)

The network worked with a team of high school aquarium volunteers to plan the 2021 CELC Virtual Youth Summit, which brought together more than 60 aquarium high school volunteers from the CELC network to hear from speakers on how to make a difference for the ocean through art, writing, advocacy, and more.

A group of teens from the New York Aquarium attended the summit and received funding from NOAA and the North American Association for Environmental Education offsite link to take what they learned to design and lead an action project in their local community. The team chose to create lesson plans for middle school students to learn about environmental issues. We asked the teens to reflect on their project and what they learned through their experiences. Read what they shared below!

Tell us the story of your project!

Our project focused on the creation of lesson plans targeted towards middle school students in the Coney Island area. Over the course of the year, we identified and researched threats to our local environment and decided to focus on the following three topics:

  1. the establishment of Hudson Canyon as a National Marine Sanctuary,
  2. the creation of a new ferry stop in Coney Island Creek,
  3. and the impacts of invasive species on our local waters.

We interviewed fisherfolks, aquarium workers, activists, and politicians to learn about their priorities on these issues and discussed how to teach youth about the significance of local activism and legislation.

Our team created three lesson plans which provided step-by-step instructions for various classroom activities. For each lesson plan, we also included an interactive presentation illustrating the issue the lesson plan aimed to address and a pre- and post-activity survey to gather qualitative data on our impact. For the activity itself, students would be asked to represent a different community member, such as a fisherfolk or aquarium worker, and talk about their perspectives regarding the formation of a local legislation on the issue they were working on. For example, a fisherfolk might want fewer restrictions on fishing and thus not advocate for Hudson Canyon to become a National Marine Sanctuary. Inspired in the end to seek a solution that appeases all parties, students from each group would draft a document together, coalescing all of their individual goals into a compromise to pass into “law.”

Our ultimate goal was to impart upon the students the empathy required to make local legislation, as well as the various perspectives that all must be addressed when seeking to understand an issue and how it affects constituents. We hoped to use the pre- and post-activity surveys to analyze our impact in terms of how much a student knew about both the issue at hand, the legislative process following the lesson, and how likely a student was to get involved in future community activism.

What went well in the project, and what did not go according to plan?

The research, collaboration, and writing process of the lesson plan project led to a wonderful final product and went according to plan. However, we had not anticipated the amount of time it would take to identify community members to interview, conduct the conversations, record and go through the conversations, and pull out the most valuable quotes that define each person’s perspective on each of the three issues we chose to address. Therefore, we fell behind schedule in the final production of our lesson plan, meaning we were unable to deliver and implement the lesson plans in the 2021-22 academic year. Fortunately, through the It’s My Estuary Day event, we connected with teachers and are currently planning to distribute all the materials over the summer before the start of the 2022-23 school year.

In the future, if we continue to make more lesson plans, we will start the community interviews earlier, or forgo them altogether, as we found there were many quotes available online that supplemented our need for information on individual’s perspectives on particular issues. However, it was amazing to have the opportunity to speak with various people from the community about local issues and try to inspire more public advocacy in all areas of local politics.

A table covered with a navy blue tablecloth that reads “New York Aquarium A Wildlife Conservation Society Park” is set up outside. There are a number of items on the table, including a long bulletin board on the left with papers pinned to it, papers, stickers, a glass jar, and different animal bones. Two people are sitting and one person is standing behind the table.
New York Aquarium teens host a table at the Coney Island’s It’s My Estuary Day to discuss lesson plans they created for middle school students to learn about issues impacting the Coney Island area. (Image credit: New York Aquarium)

What impact did your project have?

Although we aren’t able to see our meaningful work in action in its entirety, so far, we were able to connect with several local schools who were enthusiastic about utilizing the materials we created. At the It's My Estuary Day event, we were able to meet teachers from the Coney Island area, and 10 teachers signed our interest form. So just from the event, we reached at least 10 schools (and we will be reaching even more schools and students through the New York Aquarium’s network)! We believe that there is a solid foundation for those school teachers to instill a greater understanding of the necessary efforts involved in ocean conservation, as well as inspire the youth to continue creating change in their own communities, with empathy and understanding, taking into consideration everyone’s perspective. In addition, the lesson plans have the potential to be used for years to come and can continue to inspire various groups of students.

How did the project impact you?

From this experience, we learned how to coordinate as a group and realized how important it is to plan things out and to try our best to meet the deadlines that we set for ourselves. We also learned that it is hard to find a time that works for everyone and that we all need to make sacrifices if we want something to turn out well. It can be hard to speak up and talk to strangers, but sometimes you need to take risks or you can't grow. We grew as people and a group as we learned more about invasive species in NYC, the Hudson Canyon, and the Coney Island Creek. After engaging in this project, some lessons that we will take with us are that time management and organization are essential for a project to be completed on time and be efficient, and it is important to plan for the unexpected, like deadlines having to be changed to adjust to people’s schedules. We will also take with us the importance of stepping outside of our comfort zone and trying new things!