Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s Educational Programs

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by Ryan G. Van Cleave

Everyone knows Mote Marine Laboratory. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, who doesn’t love seeing the manatees and sea turtles, the jellyfish and lobsters, the coral and sea horses? And plenty of people know Mote from their events such as World Oceans Day Family Festival, Shark Days at Mote, and Night of Fish, Fun & Fright. Plus, it’s one of the few places in the country that has a Gills Club, a group for girls 13 and younger that teaches them about sharks, nature, and the environment. The Gills Club meetings always have a female scientist who speaks about her job, shares how she got there, and encourages girls to consider careers in the sciences.

But Mote is more than just an aquarium and a cool venue for events — it’s a laboratory, after all, which means that it has a serious academic and education component built right into the aquatic DNA of the organization. Here’s the good news — the learning isn’t just for grad students and marine biologists. Everyone can find a way to take advantage of their low- and no-cost learning opportunities.

Aly Busse, Mote’s Assistant Vice President of Education, says that Mote believes that conservation begins with education, and the sooner we can educate each other, the better off our oceans and our lives will be. “With our education programs, you can dive in and get your feet wet and your hearts inspired,” she says. “We offer programs for all ages.”

Mote Marine Laboratory’s commitment to supporting a more ocean-literate society begins with children — but it doesn’t stop there. In addition to the many programs they offer that are geared toward today’s youth, they also offer programs that provide adults with lifelong opportunities for public engagement in marine science, like the annual Special Lecture Series and Science Cafés.

The long-running Special Lecture Series, in particular, has been an extremely popular program within Mote’s education and outreach programs. This lecture series, graciously sponsored by local philanthropists, showcases an exciting speaker list of top scientists and explorers each year that draws hundreds of local residents to learn more about ocean-related topics.

For a younger audience, Mote Marine Lab’s high school interns have been running Teen Science Cafés, which are informal (and free!) student-led events geared for 9th-12th grade students. Held monthly during the school year, these events welcome a local scientist to present and discuss their work. The March 1st guest is Mote staff scientist Dr. Katie McHugh who will talk about long-term research monitoring Sarasota dolphins and share simple ways to protect the beautiful creatures we are lucky to call our neighbors. The May 1st guests are Senior Biologists Sheri Barton and Jennifer Johnson — they’ll talk about manatees, their environment, and the many ways in which the Manatee Research Program uses photos to learn more about their life histories.

It’s not all just live speaker events. For example, Mote Marine Laboratory’s digital learning program, SeaTrek.TV Interactive, brings Mote’s research, animals, and exhibits to learners all around the county and even internationally to a variety of audiences from young children all the way to assisted living facilities (“preK to gray,” Busse says). These virtual field trips are an exciting way to engage learners with STEM topics through the marine science perspective using Mote research as the basis. Mote has been delivering digital learning programs for over 20 years and as the technology has evolved, the ability to reach new and expanding audiences has also improved with affordable, easy-to-use distance learning technology.

This program earned the highest award in educational, interactive videoconferencing — the Pinnacle Award — for the 2015-2016 school year from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC). The Pinnacle Award recognizes remarkable quality of educational content and exceptional skill at program delivery and is given annually by the CILC to organizations that receive outstanding scores on program evaluations submitted by educators.

“I think one thing to always remember,” says Busse, “is that learning never stops and you don’t need to be a scientist to learn and care about our marine environment. With our youth programs, we know not everyone is going to grow up and be a scientist, and that’s ok. Our goal is to stimulate curiosity and provide an environment where people can explore the marine world and excite them to want to become better stewards of the coastal environment, while also showing them that if they want to pursue a career in marine science they can.”

She adds that Mote can play a significant role in helping create the important connections between our marine environment, our community, and the extremely important part that science plays. These connections are valuable regardless of your age or current/future profession.

When asked about a Mote education success story, Busse offers Sean Russell, who essentially grew up at Mote in their Education programs. He attended summer camps, participated in Homeschool programs, was a High School Intern, and volunteered with Mote in a variety of capacities. While still a teen, Sean founded the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, an annual event held at Mote Marine Laboratory that just held its 6th installment in December 2016. Under Sean’s leadership, Youth Ocean Conservation Summit is now modeled in cities across the United States in partnership with conservation organizations. Through this program, Sean works to empower young people with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to address ocean conservation issues in their local communities. The Summit event grew out of Sean’s ongoing work on marine debris prevention and fishing line recycling through the Stow It-Don’t Throw It Project, an initiative he launched as a Mote High School Intern. He has won numerous awards including the Brower Youth Award, Peter Benchley Ocean Award, and Sarasota Bay Estuary Program Blue Dolphin Award for his conservation work. He also serves as a member of the National Marine Educators Association Board of Directors, and a former member of the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, and the Board of Directors of Youth Service America and the Florida 4-H Foundation. He currently works for Mote’s Education Department as a Youth Programs Specialist, overseeing the Research-based Afterschool Program for Students (RAPS), a teen program based in the Florida Keys in partnership with one of Mote’s scientists, Dr. Erinn Muller.

In 2016, Mote had 26 people on its Education staff and 201 college interns who worked together to run 34 Education programs. The reach of their efforts is extensive — in 2015, their education programs reached nearly 28,000 K-12 students. This past year, the Mote Mobile exhibit alone reached 106,000+ people!

At the core of their efforts is Mote’s public outreach to promote conservation and sustainable use of our oceans. Busse explains, “I wouldn’t say one program is more successful than the other, because if even just one person learns something new or feels empowered to get engaged in conservation efforts, then I think that is a success.” With so many passionate people working for Mote and championing what they do, there are many future successes to be had.



on Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, please visit or call 941.381.4441.

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