An Ocean of Possibilities

    The Birch Aquarium at UCSD recently hosted a visit on August 28, 2008 by a group of children and teenagers from the southeast San Diego community of Town and Country Village Apartments. The visit was sponsored by the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC), and was planned in conjunction with ongoing research at Town and Country conducted by UCSD's Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). It successfully combined both CMBC's efforts to increase community awareness of the impact of global warming and rising carbon dioxide on the world's oceans, and LCHC's enduring concern with creating sustainable modes of long-term collaboration between UCSD and local communities.

    Town and Country Village Apartments is a diverse and vibrant low-income community whose community-center, dubbed The Learning Center, is critical to nurturing a positive and engaging space for community activities. In the Spring of 2007, Town and Country invited LCHC to engage in collaboration aimed at enriching the Learning Center with focused activities designed around already existing resources and the local community culture. Over the past year and half, the Learning Center has become an important "collaboratory" for LCHC and other UCSD organizations, where researchers can explore the social, cognitive, economic, and engineering dimensions of creating learning spaces that both respect the community as a first-class collaboration partner, and attempts to foster new community cultural practices arising from this unique kind of community-university interaction.

    It is in this spirit that CMBC and Birch Aquarium made possible the opportunity for some of Town and Country's youth —ranging from 7 to 18 years of age— to explore a sampling of the ocean's rich biodiversity and to gain an appreciation for how this delicate and intricately interconnected web of life is being affected by anthropogenic climate change. For almost all the participants it was their first visit to any aquarium, and the first chance to see and touch actual marine life. The young kids' surprise and delight at feeling the sea anemones in the tidal pools exhibit was obvious in their smiles and excited screaming. Wandering through the Hall of Fishes was also a highlight, where the big-fish aquarium made a particularly memorable impression.

    This visit allowed kids to see, hear, and feel the oceans in a new way, and has generated excitement at Town and Country as LCHC launches a new Virtual Oceans digital activity. Working together with research staff from Cornell University's NSF-funded Worlds for Internet Technology and Science (WITS), LCHC will explore how virtual digital spaces can be used as pedagogical resources to engage kids in learning about the ocean and climate change. WITS is making it possible for Town and Country youth to literally construct a virtual ocean. This will permit LCHC researchers to work with kids in hands-on activities designed to externalize kid's knowledge of the oceans, and to represent that knowledge in ways that improve kids' digital media skills and augment their own understanding of the oceans.

    This cross-disciplinary effort is clearly not possible without institutional commitment to making community outreach a serious and important goal, and to provide resources for the creation of genuine reciprocal links with local communities. Through its generous sponsorship of this wonderful visit to Birch Aquarium, the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation is the latest UCSD organization to join LCHC in its efforts to create a rich educational and research space at Town and Country Village Apartments.

Town and Country would like to express its gratitude to the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation for their support of this activity, and we look forward to making productive use of our recent visit. We have selected a few pictures from our Birch Aquarium experience for your viewing pleasure.