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Where Have All The Sharks Gone? A Teen Led Ecological Literacy Project


Joe Harber is the education programs director at the National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD and oversees programing and staff working with schools, teachers, and kids. Joe has been at the Aquarium for 13 years, and before that was an urban environmental educator at the Irvine Nature Center also in Baltimore. He has worked on various environmental education programs in New Jersey, South Dakota, and California.

On a warm humid afternoon in July, ten teenagers rollout of a white cargo van in front of an Enoch Pratt library branch in Baltimore City. Without being told, they unload a bag of costumes, several props, a backdrop, and a cooler of seawater and live animals and lug them inside the library’s air-conditioned auditorium. Like clockwork the teens set up the backdrop, arrange props, get into costumes and wait. Within a few minutes over 100 children, families and adults file in and take seats on chairs or crisscross applesauce-style on the floor. The play is about to begin.

The teen actors are participating in a National Aquarium sponsored summer and afterschool program called Aquarium on Wheels. About 20 teens participate each year. A significant part of the program is dedicated to creating, producing and performing an environmental theater-style play.

The teens just finished performing the 2014 production of Where Have All the Sharks Gone? to over 1000 community members at 20 local libraries. Where Have All the Sharks Gone is about the adventures of a young shark whose mother is caught as a trophy by humans. With the help of her buddies the young shark searches for mom.

Shark populations worldwide are declining dramatically for a variety of reasons, and the loss of these apex predators is disrupting the balance of nature in our ocean. One reason sharks are in trouble is because of trophy fishing: fishing sharks for money or prizes, and not releasing the animals after they are caught. The purpose of the play is to bring public attention to the problem of trophy fishing for sharks and to show why we should instead practice catch and release fishing. The play even describes the proper type of fishing hook to use in catch and release, whether you are fishing on the ocean or the local

After about 20 minutes the play concludes and the audience claps enthusiastically. A show of hands indicate the vast majority enjoyed the play. Then live animals are brought out and the kids and families get up close and personal with a variety of sea creatures. Everyone is enjoying themselves. But how do program managers know if the play is effective? How do we know if it changes peoples’ thoughts, ideas or behaviors? Is it making a difference? We needed a way to assess what was going on.

Our Method
A colleague told me about a technique that she had used effectively in the Aquarium galleries to get audience feedback. The tool is called Personal Meaning Mapping and was developed by John Falk (Falk, et al 1998).

To create a Personal Meaning Map, the Aquarium supervisor interviewed individuals or small groups from the audience before the play started, and asked them what came to mind when they heard the statement fishing for sharks. We wrote each response down and drew a box around it and drew a line linking it to the central prompt. Often an idea prompted more statements and boxes and additional linkages. The interview usually lasted only a few minutes. Below as an example of a completed Personal Meaning Map. The pink circles represent responses before the play. The grey ones following the play.

After the play the same individual or small group was interviewed again, and any new thoughts drawn on the map using a different color. Hypothetically, one should see a lot more new information or details on the second try as a result of watching the play performance. It’s this change that we wanted to capture in the personal meaning maps. But in order to make sense of the maps we needed a way to quantify them. To do so we modified the scoring rubric that Falk created. We scored the maps based on five dimensions:


Dimension 1 –Connections. This looks at the number of lines linking connecting ideas and thoughts drawn on the map. One point was given for each legitimate link.

Dimension 2 –Vocabulary. One point was given for each appropriate vocabulary word or phrase on the map. Appropriateness was determined by the relative importance the word had in the play script. (See X).

Dimension 3 –Breadth of Conceptual Understanding. The play touched on 17 different concepts. For example, the concept that catch and release is a method of fishing. The concepts were identified by carefully reading the play’s script and by watching the performance. One point was awarded for every appropriate concept found on the map (See X for a list of all the concepts).

Dimension 4 –Depth of Conceptual Understanding. Not only did we want to know how many different concepts the audience learned about, but also how much they learned about a particular concept. For example, it’s not enough to show that catch and release is a method of fishing, but the map needed to illustrate details about why this method is better. One point was given for each detail.

Dimension 5 –Mastery. This dimension looked at the meaning map as a whole, how complete it was, how thorough. Liken it to how one might grade an essay paper. Four levels of mastery were scored:

• Level 1 –Simple, novice-like understanding
• Level 2 –Intermediate level of understanding
• Level 3 –Proficient level of understanding
• Level 4 –Highly detailed, expert-like understanding

Our Results

Number of Meaning Maps
A total of 26 meaning maps were completed, of which 16 showed results both before and after the play. Ten maps showed only a before or after drawing. Also 16 maps were drawn by children, four were drawn by mixed groups of children and adults, one was drawn only by an adult, and five maps did not show authorship. The chart below represents the number of meaning maps completed by audience type before and after the play.

Number of Connections
The number of connections made on the meaning maps increased 57%. With more than five connections made on the average map before the play and an average of 3 new connections after watching the play. It appears viewing the play elicited additional connections and expanded the maps. The table below represents the number of connecting lines drawn on each meaning map before and after the play.

Vocabulary Words and Phrases
Appropriate vocabulary words or phrases increased 42%. On average, 2.5 appropriate vocabulary items were found before the play. Popular words were ‘sharks’, fishing’, and ‘competition.’ After the play, about one new vocabulary word on average appeared including, ‘catch and release’, ‘fishing’, ‘dermal denticals’, ‘endangered species’, and ‘trophy fishing’. Other words like ‘J-hook’ and ‘Circle hook’, which were covered in detail in the play, did not show up on any maps. Still, some important new vocabulary words and phrases did arise on the maps after the play performance. The table below shows the occurrence of appropriate vocabulary words found before and after the play.

Breadth of Conceptual Understanding
Meaning maps drawn prior to the play, on average, showed about one appropriate concept from the table below—the frequency of conceptual understanding found before and after the play. This indicates the audience came to the play with at least some relevant background information. Most of the prior knowledge had to do with boats with anchors are used in catching fish (4 times), people hold misperceptions about sharks (4), and sharks and rays interact with humans (3).

Meaning maps drawn after the play showed, on average, a gain of one more appropriate concept. The most numerous concepts identified were the existence of catch and release fishing (8), trophy fishing is occurring (6), and that people fish for sharks (2).

Depth of Conceptual Understanding
Like a river a mile wide and an inch deep we were trying to find not only how many new concepts the audience might have learned, but the depth of detail underlying each one. (See Appendix for complete list)

The depth of the audiences’ understanding of trophy fishing for sharks did increase slightly with an average of 1.3 conceptual details before the play and an average of 1.4 new conceptual details after the play.

Before the play detailed understandings included All sharks eat people (6), Trophy fishing for sharks is competitive (5) and Trophy fishing for sharks is bad (3). A completely different set of learnings occurred after the play. The top three new details were Trophy fishing takes fish without releasing them (4), Trophy fishing is wasteful and harms the number of sharks (4), and Trophy fishing is fishing for pleasure and not for food (3). The idea that all sharks eat people did not show up on a single map after the play.

Particular importance in the play was given to learning about two kinds of fishing hooks – the circle hook and the “J” hook, named for their shape. The circle hook is important because of its design, a fish caught on this type of hook can be easily and safely released. The “J” hook is much less forgiving. One map indicated that use of the “J” hook is desired when the sharks is not released, but taken home. One map also indicated that the circle hook does not hurt sharks.

The levels of mastery on the topic fishing for sharks before and after viewing the play are represented in the chart below. The average level of mastery on the maps before the play was 1.2, slightly more than a Level 1 simple, novice-like understanding. After the play the average level of mastery was 1.8, which is nearly to the intermediate level 2.

There are numerous limitations to this report.

1. It was assumed that the play performances were consistent in content and delivery for every performance. And that the script used at the beginning of the summer when this study was launched did not change.
2. There could be biases caused by interviewers using different interview styles, etc. We tried to control for interviewer bias by using a set interview prompt.
3. The sample size was only 26 maps. A much larger population would be needed to draw stronger conclusions.
4. Only 13 maps were completed before and after the play. Much of the audience sample was interviewed only at the beginning or end of the play.
5. The audience sample may not have been selected randomly. Biases could have come into play (example: interviewing only the people sitting in the front row.)

These are just some of the limitations to consider.

The big idea of the play Where Have All the Sharks Gone? was to educate the general public about the harm caused by fishing for sharks, especially trophy fishing for monetary gain, and that exploiting sharks thru competitive fishing is just one of the many threats sharks face today. The play also stressed that we can help aquatic life by using the appropriate fishing hooks which make it easier and safer to release fish unharmed.

The audiences came to the play performance at the libraries with some level of understanding of fishing for sharks, and that their overall understanding grew. The results showed that maps drawn after the play had more links or connections on them than before. From this we can say people made more meaningful connections related to the idea of fishing for sharks after the play than before and that they added to their understanding by attaching new meaning to their existing ideas. It appears the play did expand the audience’s thinking about fishing for sharks.

The audiences were captivated by the play and incorporated new vocabulary and phrasing into their thinking. The results showed an increased use of appropriate vocabulary and phrases after the play. This is an important finding. That people picked up on just one new word and incorporated it into their thinking about the topic should be good news to program managers.

While conceptual understanding of the many issues touched on in the play grew some, only a few audience members appeared to integrate important concepts like catch and release fishing and why it is a good practice in fisheries management. Still, the play should be considered a success especially considering the audience probably had little or no prior experience fishing for sharks, or fishing for anything for that matter. It may be that because the audience had little or no experience fishing, they did not pick up on the information about the different kinds of hooks. In hindsight it would be interesting to find out how much prior experience the audience had with fishing.

The program managers can take heed that environmental theater, delivered by teenage actors is effective in reaching a general audience. This report should also be used to guide the creation of future plays. Recommendations for the future include:

1. Understand that audiences will bring some prior knowledge to the performance, but you have to meet the audience where they are at.
2. Keep the play simple and easy for the audience to understand and relate to. Do not make it too abstract.
3. Train the AOW students in me aning map techniques, and use the results in real time to make changes to scripts, props or dialogue as needed.

Further Reading
John H. Falk, Theano Moussouri, and Douglas Coulson. The Effects of Visitors’ Agendas on Museum Learning. Curator, 41(2), June, 1998. American Museum of Natural History


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