One of the parents in our homeschool community worked closely with the staff of the Downtown Aquarium to encourage development of a homeschool day. They finally had their first on February 29, 2012. Overall it was a great day. Our seven year old had a lot of fun and learned quite a bit; we feel we got a good bargain. There were some minor issues and there is room for improvement but for a first time we were pretty pleased. We will definitely attend the next one and hope to see some minor changes to make it an even better experience than it was the first go-round.
The Downtown Aquarium is a fun place to go for lunch or dinner and to enjoy some rides in their carnival area. You get to dine amongst the beautiful aquariums and see some amazing sea animals. We did not know how many education programs they had until we went to a teacher open house. Unfortunately, their programs were geared toward public school classes but they did realize there was an entire untapped demographic in the homeschool sector. This Homeschool Day was their first attempt at catering to our homeschool community.
We got there a little early for registration because we were paying in cash. This actually points out the first of the problems we had. We used a sign up form to reserve our spot but when it was time for payment were sent a form to fax in. Anyone who has had to deal with credit card fraud will agree that there is no way credit card info is being sent anywhere that is neither secure nor unencrypted. This was not only inconvenient for us but also for them because they had people not show up. Had they required prepayment in a reasonable manner they likely would not have had this issue. Live and learn. Hopefully their registration and online payment process will go smoother next time.
Checking in was easy and fast and we started on time. But the introduction was, in my opinion, a waste of time and complete fluff. Everyone spent some time making name tags then they drew lots to split into groups for a “get to know you” session. Why would a high school homeschool student need to know about a preschooler when they would be separated for the classes? Additionally, there was nothing in the program where interaction between the students was necessary. I hope they remove that from the program for next time.
At this time they started the morning session discussing coral reefs. The classes were divided into 4-5 year olds, 6-11 year olds and 12-18 year olds. We attended the 6-11 classes. The problem with this is that there is a huge difference between a 6 and 11 year old. Perhaps rethinking the age categories would be in order. The actual material presented in the coral reef demonstration was pretty solid. However, I do feel they could be a bit more advanced in their discussions. Most home school families prepare before a field trip so the Aquarium staff could take less time on the basics and delve deeper into the meat of the class. Their demonstration materials could also stand to be a bit more professional and easier to see but this was a minor issue. The other minor negatives that should be addressed are the temperature of the room and the lighting which was too dark.
During the discussion some parts of coral reefs were distributed to each of the kids then they made their own coral reef. The table was the sand, there was a picture of a sun and there were items to represent salt water, the currents or waves of the ocean and sea animals. Each part of a coral reef was then added in order. This was a great way to demonstrate how everything worked together. There was also a discussion on the relationships between sea animals. Predator/prey was discussed as was “partnerships”. However, the term “symbiotic” was never introduced and there is no real reason why it wasn’t. They can all handle that word at this level. For the most part a good presentation but a few tweaks would make it stellar.
After the discussion the homeschool students took a trip to the 4th floor, an area that guests are not typically allowed to view. This was the favorite part of the day. The homeshcool kids got to see where the divers entered the huge tanks, where the marine biologists took care of the animals, how they dealt with educational animals, sick animals, how they prepared food and how they recorded data. This was very well done and highly educational. We even learned that the Downtown Aquarium boasts the tallest tank in North America.
After the tour was over we had a lunch break. We were to meet outside for lunch distribution if you purchased a lunch or to eat your picnic lunch. Lunch was a little late being served but it was not so long as to be annoying. After lunch there was ample time to explore the other exhibits and ride a few rides. This was a lot of fun and a great break. It is also the time we saw the white tigers getting fed.
Now the second session was about to occur which was on sharks. Again there was the fluff about getting to know you which was completely unnecessary. Then the presentation started. The information at the beginning which included a little interactive presentation on what sharks eat was, in my opinion, a bit beneath the intellect of the kids there but it was fun. The information on where sharks live, the conditions in which they live, how they eat, countershading and anatomy was great. The teachers passed around various shark teeth including a megalodon (extinct) tooth which was really interesting to see the differences between species.
Jason, a marine biologist at the Downtown Aquarium then talked with the homeschool children. He was very engaging and talked in depth about the sharks. This was the favorite part of the shark presentation. We ended this session with the train ride through the shark tunnel where we saw sharks and saw fish up close. This is always an impressive display. After the train ride the children were free to continue exploring and riding rides. We did this for a bit then went home.
Overall this was a great day. We all had a lot of fun and the kids likely had no (or few) complaints. While I did feel we got a bargain for an entire day of classes, lunch and rides it was by no means cheap. So, I want to maximize the value of what I paid for. Some minor tweaks will accomplish just that but overall a great day! I will return and recommend Downtown Aquarium’s Homeschool Day to others. The Downtown Aquarium is located at 410 Bagby Street Houston, TX 77002 and can be found online at http://www.aquariumrestaurants.com/downtownaquariumhouston/.