By Fernando Nosratpour, interim co-curator
In 2012, Birch Aquarium at Scripps and our sister aquarium, the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium (NMMBA) in Taiwan, were awarded a highly competitive Museums Connect grant to connect youth from both countries to each other and to the ocean.
Awarded by the American Association of Museums and the U.S. State Department, the grant brought together middle school students from Taiwan and San Diego to study coral reefs and also learn about each other’s culture. They were called Coral Reef Ambassadors.
A few of the participating students also had the amazing opportunity to visit each other’s country and explore habitats in person. In late March, I joined High Tech Middle Media Arts teacher Erika Reed and three of her students for an incredible journey to Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
In Taiwan, we met with Dr. Tony Fan, a coral researcher at NMMBA who took us to Pingtung County, where the aquarium and research center are located. We visited a local tide pool where an old, dead coral reef once existed. We also snorkeled at two other coral reefs, a first-time experience for some of the students.
The corals and fishes at Nanbay Reef were beautiful and a great opportunity for us to see a live coral reef. The students, as well as myself, had a blast. It was a sunny day, the water was warm (~78 degrees F), and the corals and fishes were colorful. It was really hard leaving the reef!
We went hiking in Kenting National Park and observed some fossilized coral reefs that were hundreds of feet above sea level. The natural beauty of the reefs and forest were very inspiring. The ocean views were spectacular.
But just as inspiring, and even more so, were the visits with students at Checheng and Hengchun Jr. High Schools. We met with students, teachers, and principals at both schools. Erika Reed was able to observe and compare the Taiwanese school system with that of High Tech Middle Media Arts in San Diego.
What a welcome we had! Students came out of classrooms to greet us. At Checheng Jr. High we were treated to a dance performance and Kung Fu presentation. At Hengchun Jr. High we had a great time making crafts with special education students and teachers. The students treated us so well—it was hard to leave!
During our 10-day stay, our San Diego students visited the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium and learned about aquarium life support systems and coral propagation. They also gave presentations at the junior high schools and shared with their Taiwanese friends a little about their lives in the United States.
In addition, we had the opportunity to try new and exotic foods throughout our visit, definitely a part of the trip we all enjoyed.
Our trip ended in Taipei where both countries’ Coral Reef Ambassadors gave a presentation at the Ministry of Education. In attendance were the Minister of Education of Taiwan, the director of Cultural Affairs of the American Institute in Taiwan, as well as a number of news organizations. That same afternoon we were invited to the American Institute in Taiwan, where we were treated to tea and a visit by the director.
Overall, the trip was very successful. We even had quite a bit of press coverage. On our flight back home, we saw a newspaper with an article and photo of our press conference in Taipei!
With the state of coral reefs in danger in many parts of the world, it’s important to involve our youth. This program allowed them to see corals in the wild, to understand the problems they face, to learn a bit about science, to learn how to propagate corals, and to understand aquarium systems that keep them alive in captivity. Additionally, these students were required to give public talks, which gave them valuable opportunities to express themselves about important issues.
On top of all this—and most importantly—students from both countries got to know each other and create bonds of friendship. International cooperation is necessary when it comes to saving coral reefs. Hopefully, this experience will influence the decisions that these students make when choosing what they want to study, the career path they take, how they treat the environment, and how they relate to and work with others.
As Coral Reef Ambassadors, the students from San Diego and Taiwan will continue to share their knowledge and experience of coral reefs with their families, their schools, and their communities.