World-class science, community support fuel Birch Aquarium
Published - 05/03/16 - 10:41 AM | 13039 views | 1 1 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A researcher plays David to a seagoing Goliath at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. The Birch, which operates with no state or city support, received a $6 million endowment last year in the interest of the aquarium’s plans for programming. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
A researcher plays David to a seagoing Goliath at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. The Birch, which operates with no state or city support, received a $6 million endowment last year in the interest of the aquarium’s plans for programming. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
Imagine you are walking into a 12-foot cube with reflective mirrors on all sides and a music score begins, transporting you underwater, where you are surrounded by light radiating off the tiny organisms, and you can imagine what it looks and feels like to be a deep-sea diver who weaves in and out of its radiance.

At Birch Aquarium at Scripps in San Diego, part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UCSD, this cube will soon exist. The installation is called the Infiniti Cube and is being created by a Scripps scientist who studies bioluminescence, a renowned London artist in residence at Scripps Oceanography and a New York musician and composer who teaches math.

Scheduled to open soon, the Infiniti Cube is just one example of how Birch Director Harry Helling is adapting to the times. The priorities for public engagement at the aquarium have changed along with the urgency of understanding and protecting the planet, so his focus is on education, conservation and engagement in the community, which Birch has served for the last 100-plus years.

Birch, located at 2300 Expedition Way, is a fusion of a world-class research institute and a world-class university, and it's also blessed with having a great location: situated on the bluffs of La Jolla above the Pacific. This alliance gives access to discoveries happening all over the world, some in real time, with hundreds of scientists who are our modern-day explorers.

Under Helling's directorship, these treasured resources will be brought to the community through new installations and galleries in the planning stages for debuts November and next summer.

A $6 million gift from Robert and Allison Price and Price Philanthropies last year "enabled us to look differently at our educational programs," says Helling, "so we can start thinking more deeply about how we can use this aquarium as an adjunct to the top research facility in the world, to help our area become more environmentally literate. Protecting the planet is a new initiative, so how do you take all that knowledge about how the planet works and turn that into how we create a better planet for our next generation? That's where our new work lies."

In the educational space, Birch Aquarium is going to be expanding, with more access to the Scripps scientists; this will create a more dynamic and better fact-finding experience for the community. Schools, grades K-12, feature prominently in Helling's plans, which focus on programs for underserved kids as a way to help them to understand and love science.

"This is our first year, and the program... went from one hour to almost a whole year of engagement for students. We visit them in their classroom; they're doing research with Scripps scientists on the beach; they're here with us at the aquarium and then we're back in the classroom with them," Helling says from his office overlooking the ocean. "We are taking the processes of science and understanding science into schools so we can engage our students, in particular our underserved students. This program has a very strong focus on underserved kids, so you can see the trajectory of our programs go from the types of traditional aquarium programs to a much deeper penetration into the schools."

In addition, plans are to add installations and galleries to make up a new exhibit called The Expedition, which will be located in the Climate Change space, currently occupying 4,500 square feet. Birch, like many other aquariums, receives no state or city support and relies solely on gifts and its revenue streams, so private support will be the catalyst to help open many of the programs and installations to the public within the next year.

Helling is building this roster of programs on what has already been done largely by his predecessor, Nigella Hilgarth, director of the New England Aquarium in Boston since 2014. Hilgarth brought with her an emphasis on science and education as well, and both Hilgarth and Helling extol the benefits of being able to work so closely with the scientists at Scripps.

"Aquariums of the future are beginning to look much more outward than in the past," says Hilgarth. "We call it engagement; we engage in order to educate. Just as Harry has these initiatives of incorporating more research into the aquarium and getting the public to look outward and find out what's happening in the oceans and on the planet, it's the same here in Boston. We're trying to get the public to love the aquarium and in so doing love the oceans and want to help the oceans. We have a very important role to play in disseminating trusted information to the public; the public trusts aquariums over any other science source, and we are in a unique position to impart knowledge that they really need to know."

Amid 1,500 Scripps people, a fleet of ships, field stations on the North and South poles, satellites, people in airplanes and robots exploring the ocean floor, the information from Scripps that comes to the aquarium will be vast and ever changing. This is good news to Helling, who sees the continued support of San Diego residents as a key factor in being able to bring it all back to the community.

"We're part of Scripps, and we're part of UC San Diego," says Helling, "and a lot of people don't know that. We're a different model than the university; we don't utilize state funds to run this place. We are considered a unit that is self-supporting, and we run like many nonprofits. We have the most committed and supportive community that one could ever hope for and was one of the things that convinced me as a director to take this job six months ago. It's one of the first things you look for: How committed is your community? This community loves this aquarium, and we hope to get a lot of support and help."

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May 06, 2016
Wow, what a great article! Science on the beach, my daughter would love that! It sounds like the wave of the future for creative learning. Love the positive outlook of the people at Scripps! Keep up the good and important work.

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