Sitting on the shore of Resurrection Bay with huge windows into underwater rookeries, the new Alaska SeaLife Center offers educational classrooms with extraordinary show-and-tell potential.
The center, home to Steller sea lions, harbor seals, puffins, urchins and other critters, is expected to attract 10,000 schoolchildren a year for organized classes with such intriguing titles as ''pinniped picnic,''''bird brains,'' and ''nocturnes.'' The latter is a program that allows kids to sleep on the top floor of the center overnight, not far from sea lions and seals.
The students already have started coming, though the official opening isn't until this weekend.
Education specialist Joan Brindle was about to explain to one of the first groups how sea stars get along in the dark, deep ocean, when Kiska and Sugarloaf, a pair of 3-year-old female sea lions, suddenly amended the syllabus. They started leaping and cavorting in a large outdoor swimming pool. It was feeding time.
Brindle adapted: Time to learn about sea lion behavior.The kids watched as trainers made the 350-pound animals work for herring, commanding them to roll over, get in and out of the pool, and once, soar straight up out of the water in graceful leaps.
The tricks performed by the sea lions are moves they need to know for working with researchers, who are trying to determine what is endangeringthem, Brindle explained.
The SeaLife Center's mission combines education with research and wildlife rehabilitation. For instance, researchers are trying to determine why the Steller sea lion population is crashing. In a region south of Kenai Peninsula, some 150,000 sea lions in the 1970s have dwindled to 25,000, researchers say. Scientists suspect nutrition is to blame. Some researchers already are at work at the center; others will join them soon.
Leslie Peart, the center's education director, said the scientists' experiments will become part of the lesson plans. Students will watch and hear what scientists are doing, and they'll get a chance to explore careers outside the classroom. In one class earlier this month, students analyzed how many calories of herring, squid or pollock the center's 550-pound male sea lion, Woody,needs to sustain himself. The answer: around 23,000 calories, or 100 turkey sandwiches.
Between the animals, the activities and the exhibits, ''children'ssenses are all stimulated. Everything's going,'' Peart said. ''They're like sponges.''
Donna York, science coordinator for the Anchorage School District, said she thinks the center will offer great opportunities for students when all the exhibits and researchers are in place. Allowing students to watch biologists work will grab their attention and give them insight into scientific research, she said.
''This is something that doesn't occur anywhere else in the country,'' York said. ''It's fantastic. I walked away really excited looking at the potential.''
Continuing research will give students a reason to keep coming back, York said.
York toured the facility Saturday with middle and high school science teachers from around Southcentral Alaska.
Some 3,500 children from schools and youth groups in Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, Matanuska Valley and Fairbanks already have signed up for the classes, which are filled through early June.
Groups can still register for self-guided tours this spring, as well as for classes this summer, fall and winter. The prices for each class vary from $7 per student for self-guided tours up to $35 per student for the sleepover. The center also will design programs to fit teachers' requests.
Recently, Liz Burck's freshman biology class from Kenai High School sampled a few of the SeaLife Center's lessons -- a drawing session, an experiment centered on sea lion metabolism and a study of the skulls of Gulf of Alaska animals and birds.
Center artist Vicki Siegel gave quick instructions on drawing sea mammals, a sure way to increase observational powers. Look for ovals, circles, triangles, she said, demonstrating with quick crayon strokes on a drawing board. An oval and two triangles -- voila, a seal.
Moments later, seven boys lay on their stomachs, nearly nose-to-nose with two harbor seals, the kind with big, dewy eyes. Sydney and Pender, orphans rescued off the coast of British Columbia, swooped through the water on the other side of the Plexiglas, seemingly as curious about the children as the children were about them. The boys made rough drawings and put them on the window for the seals to see.
Nearby, center zoologist Tim Rennick led an experiment in which students timed how long Woody, the male sea lion, could stay underwater. Woody's heartbeat slows as he dives in cold water, Rennick said, which allows him to stay under longer.
Upstairs, naturalist Jim Pfeiffenberger gathered another group around a table filled with skulls and asked students to check out the teeth.
Which are meat-eaters and which dine on veggies?
Sea lions and harbor seals have teeth with sharp, serrated edges and big muscles to close their jaws. ''Why do they need the muscles? Right! Their food is trying to get away,'' Pfeiffenberger said.
York said she liked the questioning-style teaching that center staff use in their presentations. ''They didn't give answers first. They asked questions and asked questions until people started to come to their own conclusions.''
Fifteen-year-old Mike Brown of Kenai said he got a sense of how animals adapt to survive.
''It's fun,'' Brown said, adding that if he can't race snowmachines or dirt bikes for a living he might become a wildlife biologist.
Burck, the Kenai biology teacher, agreed that adaptation was the main lesson of the day -- how a sea lion's lungs and heart rate allow it to breathe and still travel underwater, how a seal's skull shape can help it hold and devour its prey.
''We'll get to this stuff later on in class,'' she said. ''They'll remember it -- it will be nice to refer back to.''
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