Day in the Life of a Dolphin Trainer at Georgia Aquarium

  Take a look behind the scenes into a day in the life of a dolphin trainer at Georgia Aquarium.  Day in the Life of a Dolphin Trainer at Georgia Aquarium 1By: Stephen Fischer, Associate Curator, Dolphin

As a kid, most of our family vacations were to Orlando to visit Disney and SeaWorld. As I got older, these parks continued to be a favorite destination, but I started to see them in a different light. During an animal presentation at SeaWorld, I realized the unique relationship required to work with these aquatic animals. Seeing how closely the trainer and animal worked together inspired me. I remember 14-year-old Stephen every time I perform in our presentations, and I think of the thousands of people in our audience. The trainer I watched and admired as a kid will never know how she impacted me. I hope I can have a similar effect on our guests and young aspiring animal trainers.

While pursuing this career, I spent my summer interning at different animal parks to gain hands-on experience in the field. After graduation, I was hired at a marine park near my hometown, working with dolphins and sea lions. I then met one of the trainers in Georgia Aquarium’s dolphin area and was invited to shadow them. I was so impressed with the Aquarium and its animals that I knew this was where I wanted to be.

A typical day on the dolphin team starts very early. We begin by sorting hundreds of pounds of fish to make individualized diets for each of our animals. Once their diets are ready, we begin each day with visual exams and collecting any medical samples our vets may need to ensure all our dolphins are healthy. The best part is every day is different – it is our job to ensure our dolphins never know what’s coming next because this keeps them excited, engaged, and active throughout the day. Their day may include participating in presentations, guest programs, new behavior training sessions, play sessions with some of their favorite toys, or sessions focused on continuing to build bonds between our animals and trainers.

Occasionally, I get the incredible opportunity to go out into the community and share my passion for these animals. This will be my fourth year joining Toomer Elementary School at their Science Night. Science Night is an entertaining and informative STEAM-filled event hosted by volunteers from the Atlanta community. These are opportunities for the kids to have hands-on exposure to the various fields of science. Our education department also recently hosted students from Booker T Washington at the Aquarium so they could learn more about careers in the field of STEM from our staff and experts.

Living in Atlanta, many of these students may never see animals like ours up close. The Aquarium provides an opportunity to learn more about our animals, their habitats, and what we can do to protect them. Though some of these students may have seen our dolphin presentation, they may still need to learn what it takes to care for these animals.

Events like this allow them to ask questions and get more inspired by what they learn. Many of our firmest habits develop at an early age.  Working with kids at this age helps form habits of conservation that become a way of life. I secretly hope these kids go home and bug their parents to start recycling, too.

Day in the Life of a Dolphin Trainer at Georgia Aquarium 3Dolphin Trainer at Georgia Aquarium

Being an animal caretaker is an incredibly rewarding career. The animals I work with truly depend on me, and that inspires me to give them my all every day. The bonds we form make these animals more like family than co-workers. I love seeing the smiles on our guests’ faces as they leave our presentations, and knowing what I do brings joy to their day.

For anyone interested in working with dolphins or other marine mammals, I recommend pursuing a degree in psychology, biology, marine biology, or another life science-related field. You will also want strong swimming skills and a SCUBA certification. Most importantly, look for ways to volunteer or internships working with animals to gain some hands-on experience. These programs will also help you ensure you are passionate about this. Working with these animals is a lot of fun. But heads up – it’s also a lot of hard work (and a LOT of cleaning).

Teaching the Next Generation of Aquatic Engineers

Teaching the next generation of aquatic engineers: Georgia Aquarium’s ROV camp hosted a group of girls from Sweetwater Middle School.

By Billie Snieder, environmental educator, Georgia AquariumTeaching the Next Generation of Aquatic Engineers 2

Have you ever wondered how remote-operated vehicles, or ROVs, are used by scientists to collect data or various samples? Maybe, you are curious how engineers build and fly ROVs in the ocean? Or what challenges they face while building and navigating ROVs? These were some of the questions asked by a group of twelve middle school girls from Sweetwater Middle School during Georgia Aquarium’s ROV camp.

Over the course of five days, these students learned various engineering skills that allowed them to design, assemble, and operate an ROV. They learned how engineers brainstorm solutions by creating, testing, and improving a design. During the first two days, students learned how to strip, splice, and solder wire. They also learned how to ensure their connections were waterproof. Students practiced their navigation skills by flying drones. These skills were then applied to the actual construction of their ROVs. They were able to assemble the control box and attach it to the tether and propellers.

Once the main parts of the ROV were complete, each group designed and built the frame. All four groups were able to take their design from a paper sketch to a finished 3D shape. Taking into consideration the materials available and the need to be waterproof. Led by Georgia Aquarium Environmental Educators, these students were able to integrate STEM skills to complete their Angelfish ROVs from the Marine Advanced Technology Education center (MATE).

The benefits of working in groups, was seeing the different methods of problem-solving and design strategies. They also showed encouragement to one another as they practiced their newly learned skills. Each ROV was uniquely designed, with several different shapes being utilized to construct their frames. Each group faced the challenge of balancing three propellers on the frame, while preventing the ROV from tipping over once submerged.Teaching the Next Generation of Aquatic Engineers 3

These students also had the opportunity to hear from several women in STEM careers. From how ROV engineers utilize biomimicry to design devices that look or act like animals, to understanding how constraints impact design choices. These speakers encouraged the girls to embrace challenges, learn new skills, and pursue their dreams in the STEM field. The students explored the science behind buoyancy and used technology to create a functioning control box. They also applied the engineering design process and geometry skills to construct their frames from PVC pipes. Students also learned how ROVs are tools that help scientists explore the ocean, aid in clean-up projects, and collect data/samples.

The highlight of the week was seeing the students finally test their ROVs in the water. Each group piloted their ROVs in the Sea Lion Pier 225 gallery pool. The groups made a few final adjustments to maintain negative buoyancy. Then all four ROVs were able to successfully navigate and explore the pool. The groups even practiced landing the ROVs on a specific target area. The biggest challenge they faced during this portion of the camp was finding ways to improve the design. One common fix was removing materials to make the ROV less buoyant to navigate more easily through the water column. This gave the students an excellent opportunity to practice the engineering design process as they tested and improved their designs.

Opportunities for exposure to STEM careers are important for young girls, especially young girls of color.  Exposure to new career fields like this can spark a newfound passion for science and engineering. These skills are also extremely valuable regardless of the career they pursue as they learn to problem solve, identify roadblocks, and collaborate with others. One of the biggest takeaways from this was how empowering it can be to work with a team of all women in a traditionally male-dominated field. One of the goals of this camp is to help build not only competency but also confidence in the student’s abilities. As these students continue their education, we hope they will not only continue to pursue their dreams but also share their knowledge and skills as they inspire more young girls, and young girls of color, to join STEM fields.


Georgia Aquarium Earns Prestigious STEM Certification

Since its opening in 2005, Georgia Aquarium has prioritized being a unique educational experience for both guests and students alike. The dedication and focus of these efforts have been recognized as Georgia Aquarium becomes the first aquarium to be a Cognia Certified STEM Provider.

Many of the students and guests that visit Georgia Aquarium may never see the ocean in their lifetime. It is deeply engrained in the Aquarium’s mission to bring the ocean to those who have never seen a shoreline. This is done through engaging and educational interactions and exhibits with thousands of animals from all over the world including the Arctic, the Indo-Pacific, and even freshwater Georgia streams.

As the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere topping 11 million gallons of water, Georgia Aquarium has the incredible opportunity to provide hands-on and up-close animal encounters that serve as learning experiences.

“When a student can get close to an animal and see their eyes, or scales, or watch it swim, it creates a powerful emotional connection. Those connections help students retain and understand the information they are learning in that moment,” said Dr. Brian Davis, president and CEO of Georgia Aquarium. “Through our engaging educational programs, we work to create those life-long bonds to inspire respect for our ocean and a willingness to protect it,” said Davis.

Georgia Aquarium offers a variety of educational programming, field trips, teacher resources, and hands-on learning for students of all ages. The education loop within the Aquarium was recently redesigned to demonstrate STEM learning in each of the classrooms for our school groups that learn on-site. The education department leads two camps each year with STEM themes. One of these camps gives seventh grade girls the opportunity to learn STEM and STEAM alongside researchers and educators. They explore the science of marine biology, engineering behind research tools, and even put their STEM skills to the test by working together to build things like remote operated vehicles.

We are prepared to continue our educational outreach and learning to students and guests of all ages to teach them about STEM. As a Cognia Certified STEM Provider, this helps validate the science, technology, engineering, and math we have been teaching in our non-traditional classroom for the last 15 years and we are excited to continue that important work.
- Dr. Brian Davis, President and CEO of Georgia Aquarium

Educational outreach even extends to the front of our galleries for families and educators. The gallery guides include field guides, providing information on our extraordinary animals and STEM careers within Georgia Aquarium. The goal is to emphasize the many career paths and courses of study students could pursue in aquatic sciences including, marine biology, microbiology, psychology, and even behavioral science.

“As a former middle school and high school science teacher I understand the value of hands-on and visual learning of STEM and STEAM related fields and I carry that experience with me into my current role at Georgia Aquarium,” said Davis. “To complement that, my former role as director of a STEM-based high school and my work in Cobb County schools has helped clearly provide a foundation for immersing students in learning. Now, those experiences coincide with my current role at the Aquarium and the Aquarium’s truly immersive exploration of STEM related fields.”

Over the course of the last several months, the Aquarium has worked to create and provide new virtual educational offerings in accordance with STEM for educators and students completing at-home learning. In addition to online lesson plans and field guides, the nonprofit now offers virtual field trips, virtual tours, and even virtual animal encounters to show students what STEM careers and fields of study await them at a place like Georgia Aquarium.

“We recognize that learning is changing, and we can provide important STEM education through virtual and visual learning,” said Davis.

During Georgia Aquarium’s closure earlier this year in the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Aquarium debuted online education videos that address STEM careers, topics, aquatic and natural science. Led by the education department and expert researchers and aquarists, these videos provide educators and parents the ability to showcase these topics without leaving their home or classrooms. All of the Aquarium’s at-home learning assets are available free of charge and at anytime through the website.

“We are prepared to continue our educational outreach and learning to students and guests of all ages to teach them about STEM. As a Cognia Certified STEM Provider, this helps validate the science, technology, engineering, and math we have been teaching in our non-traditional classroom for the last 15 years and we are excited to continue that important work,” concluded Davis.

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