WHEN Stephan Soule began hosting School Engagement Activities (SEA) at Southern Cross University's National Marine Science Centre (NMSC) nine years ago, little did he know it would become one of the most successful programs of its kind in regional Australia.
The curriculum-based learning activities offered by the program enable students from Kindergarten to Year 12 to engage in hands-on learning at the Solitary Islands Aquarium, with behind-the-scenes exposure to one of the country's best marine research facilities.
Mr Soule said the SEA program not only attracted students from the Coffs region, but school groups travel from as far west as Armidale and Tamworth for week-long excursions on the Coast, when some students see the beach for the first time.
"Unlike students in big metropolitan cities, students in regional areas don't usually have access to museums and specialised facilities to gain more information and insight with enhanced learning activities to fill the gaps in the subjects they're studying. This can be a big disadvantage compared to their city counterparts," said Mr Soule, the Community Outreach and Education Program Manager at NMSC.
"But this is a fantastic world-class facility that teachers and students in the region can dip into, while drawing on the expertise of our researchers and qualified lecturers. No other regional hub in NSW has facilities like this."
The National Marine Science Centre is part of Southern Cross University's School of Environment, Science and Engineering, boasting one of Australia's best marine research facilities and a flow-through seawater system that supplies high quality seawater to labs, tank farm, hatchery and the aquarium.
Mr Soule said the Solitary Islands Aquarium featured marine life from the local area and hosted more than 12,000 visitors annually, including 2500 students in 80 school groups through the SEA program last year.
There are 12 curriculum-based activities teachers can nominate to take part in, including a handful of field activities such as studying the ecology of rocky shores, sandy beaches, and mangrove ecosystems, as well as the human impact on the environment.
"The laboratory-based activities include learning about fish biology through dissection, climate change and ocean acidification and marine taxonomy. Students even get a first-hand experience of breeding sea urchins during our embryology activity," he said.
"The program has developed into an important part of a number of school programs, with some teachers incorporating it into their programs every year.
"By bringing students to this facility, we also demonstrate what a career in marine science looks like, and some go on to study science through Southern Cross University at the National Marine Science Centre."
The Solitary Islands Aquarium is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday and every day during the school holidays. More information, including the SEA program can be found HERE.