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Monday, July 28, 2014

Lessons from the Pacific Coast, The Hatfield Center, Newport, Oregon

The following blog was written by ECHO's Executive Director Phelan Fretz. He is on a summer sabbatical from ECHO and is taking the time to explore the country. He promised to send us "nuggets of learning" from the field, and this is the third installment.


Lessons from the Pacific Coast
The Hatfield Center, Newport, Oregon
by Phelan R. Fretz, Ph. D.


The Oregon coast
I had always wanted to visit the Hatfield Marine Science Center on the coast of Oregon. The Hatfield Center was named for a homegrown environmentally-focused US Senator, Mark O. Hatfield, in the 1970's. Similarly, Senator Patrick Leahy was honored when we opened ECHO's facility on the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in 2003.
Research vessel
Driving down the breathtaking Oregon coast, with the ocean crashing on the volcanic, black rock fingers reaching out from the cliffs above, I rounded the bend to see a stunning bridge framing Newport's inlet - the mouth of the Yaquina River. Filling 45 acres in this protected harbor lies the Hatfield Marine Science Center. First you see the flotilla of research vessels, with NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency, NSF (National Science Foundation) and OSU (Oregon State University) embossed on their bridges. Then your eye moves to the sprawl of buildings housing eight federal and state partners. Mixed in these buildings is their public Visitor Center, the focus of my visit.


Upon first blush, the thriving Hatfield Visitor Center would seem very different from ECHO and the Leahy Center. It is 6x the size of ECHO, has eight national research and public outreach partners (300 staff onsite) with significant investments compared to ECHO's one (UVM), and its focus, marine instead of fresh water, would suggest there's not much for ECHO to learn. But, upon closer inspection, there is a great deal similar to ECHO - the Visitor Center serves 150,000 (mostly in the summer), lies in a small community and has built its public experience on the scientific research of their partners.


The Hatfield Visitors Center is modeling three ideas ECHO should consider based on their partnership with Oregon Sea Grant, a NOAA program integrating research and public outreach. As the nation's first Sea Grant facility awarded 'institutional status,' the Hatfield Center has Sea Grant running the Visitor Center as public outreach, convening leaders when critical environmental issues arise and conducting visitor research.


Dave Hansen, Sea Grant's site manager for the Hatfield Visitor Center, indicated "We staff the visitor experience with five educators and a bunch of aquarists to care for the fish. Because of Sea Grant's support, we ask only for a suggested donation at the door - $5 per person, $20 per family." Dave continues, "Most of the exhibit ideas come from the Hatfield Center's scientists; focusing on fisheries management, tide pool animals, invasive species, and their most popular, impacts of earthquakes and tsunamis." The University of Vermont's Sea Grant program is focused on programs for schools and public outreach. What can/should the role of Sea Grant be in the daily experience at ECHO?


Tsunami tank
In addition to an exhibit, the Japanese tsunami provided the second model idea ECHO should consider, convening leadership when an environmental crisis emerges. Dave explained, "Months after Japan's tsunami, pieces of a commercial dock showed up on our shores."  With great concern, he added, "We are talking about giant concrete structures, a hundred feet long, threats to navigation and covered with invasive species. And to our surprise, the species attached to the docks were alive after their ocean journey, potentially adding new
Live animal tanks
species to our already stressed ecosystem." In response to this crisis, Oregon Sea Grant convened scientists and policy makers to define what to do. Dave added, "We were very successful. Resources were allocated. As more debris arrived, we had a plan." For another issue, with direct implications for Vermont, Dave shared, "All of us in the northwest were struggling with how to stop invasive species arriving on personal boats, a huge issue for the region's lakes and ponds. So we convened all the AG's (Attorney Generals) from the neighboring states and they came up with a coordinated approach." The region now has mandatory boat checks and education programs.
As we prepare to launch the second Leahy Center Environmental Summit in April 2015, is there a role for Sea Grant? Should we be partnering to convene leaders to tackle special problems such as in Oregon?


Dungeness crab
The third model idea is just getting started. About a decade ago, Oregon State University, in partnership with US Sea Grant, launched new professorships in 'free-choice learning', aka, learning that happens in museums, zoos, aquariums and science centers. Two of the nation's thought leaders in this discipline, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, moved to Oregon State's main campus in Corvallis, an hour east of the Hatfield Center. "Because of their leadership", Shawn Rowe, free choice learning leader at the Hatfield Visitors Center, indicated, "we are gaining a much better idea about how people learn in our institutions." Shawn continues about his work, "Recently, we've moved to the idea that museums should be a public forum where people come to make meaning. We're taking visitors seriously as self-directed learners and investigating whether their goals and interests match the museum's goals and offerings - and if not, where do we make the shift?"  The free choice learning work at the Hatfield Visitor Center challenges us at ECHO. Should we consider conducting 'free-choice learning' research with our guests?


I witnessed three models for how Sea Grant is an integral partner in how the Hatfield Marine Science Center engages multiple audiences. What does all this mean for ECHO? I forward to working with Vermont's Sea Grant and ECHO's board and staff to define the answers.  

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