Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.
Rural communities in the lower South Island are exploring the ocean world and our environmental impact, thanks to a travelling aquarium called Aquavan.
It doesn’t have Aquaman's superpowers but this converted minivan still packs a punch by putting Otago, South Westland, Southland and South Canterbury locals face-to-face with strange sea creatures.
The van has been specially designed to transport live marine species, being kitted out with chilled tanks that constantly circulate and filter seawater for the wildlife to stay comfortable while they travel.
Aquavan is led by Sally Carson, Director of the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre at the University of Otago, and run by a team of marine scientists and science communicators.
When visiting classrooms and community halls, the team bring out a portable tank containing common rocky shore critters for locals to get up close to.
“I liked seeing the tank and holding the starfish, because they looked really ugly but when I held them they felt smooth and were actually nice,” says Leah, 10, at Palmerston Primary School in Otago.
Ella, 9, adds, “I liked touching the black thing with the shell on top [duck billed limpet]”.
At Palmerston Primary School, each class also took part in science activities to learn more about estuaries - where the river meets the sea - and environmental health at different stations set up around the school hall.
For example, students and teachers investigated the concept of a catchment and how rainfall can carry pollutants on the land into rivers and the sea, how to assess the health of a snail, and the differences between fresh and salt water.
“I liked the snail race 'cause it was fun, and it was cool seeing all the snail flip itself back over really fast,” says Isaac, 9.
Each group also explored what crabs eat based on the shape of their pincers, what affects the amount of sediment in estuaries, and how shellfish use their gills to breathe, feed and clean the water.
“I really liked learning about the crabs," says Harmony, 9. "I found out that there are actually two types that eat cockles – one that eats open [dead] cockles and the other eats shut [live] cockles. And I now know how to pick the crabs up carefully when I see them at the beach.”
Aquavan educator Lucy Coyle, who is studying a masters in Science Communication, says that the learning experience isn’t just for the students.
“We learn as much as the kids do. We’re constantly improving and tweaking the programme to make it easier to understand the science.”
Year 4 teacher Megan Gallagher says that she has been inspired by the activities that she did with Lucy and other members of Aquavan’s team.
“I really hope they can come back, as I’d love to do more of this. I’m even thinking of getting some of our own crabs from the beach so that we can explore them more,” she says.
Sally and her team have now expanded Aquavan's reach to include entire communities – not just schools – through organising or taking part in events and field days for locals.
The field days in particular help to connect students, families, community groups, hapū/iwi, scientists and local environmental managers, through workshops that help these locals develop skills in environmental monitoring and knowledge mapping as well as forge long-term networks for environmental care.
At the West Otago A&P Show in Tapanui, Sally enjoyed reconnecting with students who had taken part in the Aquavan school programme earlier that week.
“I really loved seeing the students share their learning with their parents, who they took with them to the show,” she says.
“The farmers were also really engaged! One farmer told me that he was very concerned about the water quality of their river, but he had never made the connection with the sea! He also commented that his son had come home and told him that he’d better do something about the erosion around the edge of the stream on their farm.”
Aquavan is continuing to visit schools, community halls and country fairs throughout the rest of the year.
Aquavan is run by the Department of Marine Science at the University of Otago, with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.