Since the 1970s, the MECA staff has worked diligently to develop an understanding and appreciation of Georgia's coastal environments by providing resources and unique opportunities to show students, teachers and the general public first-hand how they can enjoy the coast and help preserve it as well.
"You are not born being a steward of the Georgia coast. You have to take it as your own," said Anne Lindsay, MECA director and public service associate. "I think the most important thing we're doing here is providing those opportunities for people to make the coast their own, whether or not they choose to live here. People love the coast, but we need to love it in a way that will allow it to maintain itself in a healthy state."
MECA's education facilities-which include a 10,000-gallon teaching aquarium, nature trails and outdoor field sites, numerous laboratories and classrooms, and a museum, gallery, dormitory and full-service cafeteria-allow staff to teach in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings through programs ranging from one hour to several days in length.
Lindsay hopes these programs help people see that Georgia's coast is much more than a vacation hot spot and that everything people do affects nature. She also believes that it's never too early or too late to start learning.
"Whether they are infants in the Mommy and Me Program, students participating in one of our many educational field trips or elder retirees who simply want to help out, we have something for everyone," said Lindsey. "Our facility is unique because we can work with everybody in the state, not just a particular age group, but a wide range of people of all ages and interest levels."
MECA's education programs are offered year-round Monday through Saturday and cover a wide variety of topics ranging from fish painting classes to maritime forest hikes to hands-on labs. These programs are open to both school groups and the general public. MECA also offers weeklong summer camps for children ages 2 to 15 throughout June and July.
"We want people to come out and get involved in the Georgia coast," said Lindsay. "Many come from the Atlanta area, so they're living 200 miles or so from the ocean, and others live in urban environments and simply don't have the chance to just go outside. So we are able to take advantage of that natural curiosity and enthusiasm for the natural world and get people-especially students-into the region to see their coastal backyard."
In addition to student and public programs, MECA supports what teachers around Georgia are doing in the classroom by providing them with additional hands-on activities.
"The goal is to fill a niche for teachers to help augment what they're doing in the classroom with once-in-a-lifetime field experiences for students," said Lindsay. "All activities are correlated to what the teachers are doing in the classroom."
Gayle Porter, a teacher from Flint River Academy in Woodbury, Ga., recently led a group of sixth graders on a two-day field trip to MECA in which students participated in labs, field experiences and a daylong trip to Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge, a barrier island on Georgia's coast accessible only by boat.
"Coming here makes you stop and realize how everything we do as individuals affects nature," said Porter. "I hope the students were overwhelmed by the connectedness of all living things. I hope they realized the beauty and wonder of this world and that they would want to protect it . . . that their imaginations would be sparked and [that they would] want to explore and learn."
Lindsay and the other MECA staff couldn't agree more. "My biggest hope is that people get connected to the natural world," said Lindsay. "We want them to go home with more questions than they came with. If they learn something about marine debris, don't let that experience be the end. Let that be the beginning of something else, whether it's advocacy or a basis for college work or a career or just to be knowledgeable about the Georgia coast. We want to make stewards of the coast. That's the underlying goal."
MECA will commemorate the milestone at the Skidaway Marine Science Day on Oct. 20 with free aquarium tours, laboratory demonstrations, reptile programs and more.
For more information MECA's education programs, Skidaway Marine Science Day or to schedule a visit, see www.marex.uga.edu/aquarium or call 912/598-2335.
About Marine Extension Service
The University of Georgia Marine Extension Service is a Public Service and Outreach unit serving the Georgia coast to increase efficiency of existing marine industries, identify new industries that do not harm the environment and increase public awareness and understanding of coastal ecosystems. The University of Georgia is a land- and sea-grant institution.