Giggles of delight are heard throughout the Tennessee Aquarium as students from around the region come face-to-face with penguins, touch lake sturgeon or have a colorful toucan fly overhead. These encounters not only leave a lasting impression, they also help teachers reinforce lessons taught in the classroom. “My students come here and they’re like little sponges,” said fourth grade teacher Susan Gaines after a recent Aquarium visit. “It’s a grand learning experience.”
Seeing sharks, giant catfish and other creatures is certainly fun, but it also helps fuel some lasting benefits. Studies have shown that students who receive environmental education programs score better on standardized tests, improve their overall GPA, stay in school longer, receive higher-than-average scholarship awards and display better classroom behavior. “We know interactive field trips, especially when combined with a standards-based environmental education, enrich the lives of children and help them academically and socially,” said Tim Baker, the Aquarium’s director of education.
Unfortunately, tight budgets force many school systems to make tough choices when it comes to experiential learning. In fact, 92% of teachers surveyed report that transportation costs are a major barrier when considering educational field trips to the Aquarium. Particularly hard hit are schools that serve low income areas, like the system Mrs. Gaines works for. “This year was crunch time and we would not have been able to visit without some assistance from the Aquarium,” said Ms. Gaines.
In 2012 alone, the Tennessee Aquarium covered admission and program costs for more than 30,000 underserved students and offered reduced price admission to another 55,000 students. The Aquarium has always been dedicated to covering admission costs for students in need, but today some school budgets are so lean that there is no money available for transportation costs.
The Aquarium was able to reimburse the cost of transportation for Title 1 schools from 2010-2012 thanks to a three-year grant. During that time students from 190 schools were able to come to Chattanooga to learn about the natural world.
To help bridge the transportation funding gap facing many schools, the Tennessee Aquarium has launched a fundraising campaign. The “$20 For 7 Drive for Schools” is an opportunity for individuals throughout the Tennessee Valley to help. Each $20 contribution covers the cost of transportation for seven students. “We hope people recall the impact of field trips they, and their children, experienced and will want to help ensure others have that same opportunity,” said Mr. Baker.
To support the $20 For 7 Drive for Schools, make a gift to the Tennessee Aquarium at www.tnaqua.org/contribute or via mail: Drive for Schools, P.O. Box 11048, Chattanooga, Tn. 37401.