Sean Bignami, biology professor at CUI, won a nearly $12,000 grant funded by fees from “whale tail” license plates that is allowing him to bring mobile touch tanks full of sea stars, urchins, sea slugs and more to schools, summer enrichment programs, a children’s museum, a health fair and other venues this summer.
“The California Coastal Commission funds a bunch of different programs including my outreach program,” says Bignami. “They support anything centered on conservation or education of marine science.”
Bignami ran the same mobile tank outreach program last year and served 1,800 people. Creatures are kept alive in six-inch-deep trays using a mobile pump and chiller which keeps the water at their preferred temperature. Bignami welds the plastic trays together himself and drills holes for the plumbing.
It was a really cool series of lessons and hit dead-on with some of the next generation science standards
“The animals stay pretty happy,” he says. “A little stressed from the touching, but we manage that as best we can. We don’t have any problems with mortality.”
Last year they brought a baby shark that Bignami hatched out of an egg in CUI’s marine lab.
“We didn’t let anyone touch her,” he says. Also among the travelers: an octopus “which is a big hit,” he says, and invertebrates like urchins, snails, sea stars and sand crabs.
“We’ve been getting the name out into the communities through outreach programs and Instagram,” says Bignami. “We are trying to become more recognized.”
One focus of the grant this year is to work closely with a single school, Heritage Elementary in Tustin USD. Teachers there put together more in-depth lessons and a project-based curricula. Bignami brought the touch tanks and taught about tide pools in third grade classes. Then the students learned how to measure biodiversity in animal habitats. The lessons culminated with a trip to tide pools to collect real data and identify animals.
“It was a really cool series of lessons and hit dead-on with some of the next generation science standards,” Bignami says.
The mobile tanks are an extension of the 2,000-gallon marine lab Bignami and CUI students have built on campus. The lab is a teaching resource for classroom work and senior projects and includes 75 or more species of animals ranging from sponges and worms, to moon jellies they’re propagating. More exotic residents include sharks, fish, a moray eel and a lobster.
To enjoy CUI’s underwater population on Instagram, follow Cui_marine_lab.