Roundhouse Aquarium classes viewed around the world

by Erin Waldner

It’s a weekday afternoon and Juan Lopez, an educator at the Roundhouse Aquarium on the Manhattan Beach Pier, is demonstrating a science experiment to a group of students in kindergarten and first grade.

After explaining what an hypothesis is, Lopez tells the children that if he drops water onto his “stinky” sandal he thinks the water will go through it.

“That’s my hypothesis,” he said, adding that the only way to find out if his hypothesis is true is to test it.

He pours water onto his sandal, which he is holding. The water pools on the sandal instead of going through it.

“So boys and girls, my hypothesis is not true,” Lopez concluded.

Lopez taught this lesson virtually, not on site at the Roundhouse Aquarium.

The Roundhouse was forced to close its doors to the public on March 16, 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened in early summer but just two days later the county shut down practically everything, including the Roundhouse. 

However, the teaching facility continued to educate school children.

The Roundhouse is part of a collaboration of approximately 30 science providers in greater Los Angeles who work with the Los Angeles Unified School District. They are providing virtual learning programs to meet some of the gaps in science instruction. 

The collaboration is part of the new Expanded Learning Alliance — ExpandLA for short. Its participants provide out-of-school programs that range from sports to arts to science. 

ExpandLA wants to create a system in which children and teenagers in greater Los Angeles have equal access to expanded learning opportunities.

An ExpandLA task force began meeting in January of 2020. COVID-19 struck a few months later. In response, the organization sped up its timeline and put together the network of 30 or so science providers to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) online. 

The program is dubbed Season of STEM. Virtual classes began in the summer of 2020 and continued this school year.

Juan Lopez leads an online class for young children at The Roundhouse Aquarium.

The Roundhouse offers two types of virtual programs. It provides a program for the core academic portion of the day for fifth graders in the L.A. area. Students learn how different habitats, from the mountains to the sea, are connected.

The Roundhouse teaches 18 to 20 classes a week.

In addition, the aquarium provides after-school enrichment classes for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Topics range from cephalopods to watersheds.

With this program, the aquarium’s scientists and marine educators teach approximately 20 classes a week from the Roundhouse.

“The kids love it because they get to see up close the anatomy of a squid, for instance, and what its function is in the ocean,” said Roundhouse Executive Director Grace Adams.

She said students might also receive a virtual tour of the aquarium.

Lopez began his after-school class on April 15 telling the children that the topic for the day was beaches. He asked the children to show with a thumbs up or down if they enjoyed going to the beach. 

Lopez asked the children more questions. Do they have shell collections? Who likes to build sand castles at the beach? Does anyone like to swim or splash around in the ocean?

One girl said she had never been to the beach.

Lopez’s classes feature “mystery animals.” He told the students on April 15 that the mystery animal for that day can be found hiding under the sand, is usually spotted in the summer “and its eyes are on its butt.” He asked the children to guess what animal he was talking about.

The correct answer was a sand crab.

After he conducted his sandal test, he invited the students to conduct their own tests with water at home. He gave them a few minutes to step away from their computers and look for the materials they needed. He then helped them test their hypotheses.

The organizations participating in Season of STEM are developing online programs for the summer. Adams said they want to continue their collaboration in the fall but don’t know yet what form it will take.

In addition to the Season of STEM classes, the Roundhouse offers its regular education programming, although none is currently provided in person. The aquarium gave a live lesson on April 10 on YouTube titled, “Phenomenal Seaweed.” It was geared toward children.

“Seaweed is the absolute best,” Val Hill told viewers. Hill is the aquarium’s development and science director.

The lesson is part of the aquarium’s Earth Day programming, funded by Dive N’ Surf, Port of Long Beach and Chevron. Virtual events have been held throughout April.

Having explained that kelp is a type of brown seaweed, Hill stood before the aquarium’s kelp forest tank and pointed out different kinds of fish swimming in the tank, including mackerel and moray eel.

Hills picked up a live sea urchin, which lives in one of the aquarium’s tanks, and showed it to viewers. She explained that sea urchins graze on seaweed.

Adams said people as far away as India have been watching the aquarium’s online programming.

He said he hopes children who attended the aquarium’s virtual classes this school year or tuned it to its regular programming will visit and see in person what they learned about online.

Although the Roundhouse is still not allowed to hold in-person, on-site programs, it has reopened for visitors at a reduced capacity. The public must make an advanced timed-entry reservation online. ER

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Written by: Erin Waldner

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