• Something Very Fishy

    Science and art outreach production ignites awareness of marine conservation

By Hannah Halusker

ON WEEKDAY MORNINGS IN FEBRUARY 2019,  Something Very Fishy occurred at the Pickens Performing Arts Center.

The stage featured an underwater scene of the ocean floor, complete with a colorful display of corals and deep-sea rocks, where two puppets — Octavia the Octopus and Boss the Great White Shark — were being operated by human actors. A blue glow emanated into the audience, highlighting an auditorium full of awestruck elementary schoolers and the teachers and chaperones who brought them.

Then the lighting transitioned. The underwater scene turned yellow, and Octavia and Boss began to despair. A reckless fisherman had left barrels of oil and gas near his boat, and an overnight storm had knocked them into the ocean. Earlier, the same fisherman forgot to clean up his supplies, and a young seal in the reef, Sunny, had mistaken a fishing hook for a treat and was rushed to a local marine hospital. A heat wave engulfed Boss and Octavia, and they began to scramble, searching for colder, more comfortable water amid their destructed habitat that was now littered with trash.

“People are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place. How will they ever know that we need help to get out of it?” Octavia cried.

A few scenes later, Sandy, a marine biologist, entered center stage. She sat down with the fisherman, and after a bit of scolding, she broke into song to educate him on the small changes he could make to be more protective of the environment.

“Reduce is the first step — remember to use less. Say no to plastic bags when you’re in the store. Instead, use fabric ones; they fit so much more!” Sandy sings. “Reuse is the second step — use the same thing again. Separate your trash, recycle it — turn it into something new.”

Created by a team of scientists, artists, and students from Educational Entertainment LLC and Clemson University, the show was part of an innovative outreach program that exemplifies the best of what can happen when science and art collide.

THE RAINFORESTS OF THE OCEAN

IF THE EARTH WERE A BODY SYSTEM, the ocean would be our most vital organ. The deep, salty sea occupies 70 percent of the planet’s surface and is the leading regulator of our climate, weather patterns, and the oxygen that we breathe. Daily temperatures and wind speeds are the result of constantly rotating ocean currents, and rainfall is the result of the ocean in evaporation.

Beneath the surface, the ocean is home to hundreds of thousands of living species — and potentially millions more that haven’t been discovered yet, given that only 5 percent of the ocean has been explored.

In their assortment of stunning colors and shapes, corals are one of the most biologically important species residing in the ocean, their reefs serving as the primary habitat for nearly a quarter of marine life. With an economic impact estimated at $30 billion annually, corals are also important to humans across the globe who turn to reefs for food, fisheries and tourism.

But humans are also impacting coral reefs in devastating ways. Fishing practices, such as overfishing, are causing irreparable damage to these marine invertebrates. Industrial activities — from the burning of coal and oil, to the clearing of land for new developments, and the discarding of toxic waste into waterways — are contributing to Earth’s changing climate, which is directly acidifying the ocean environment.

As temperatures rise, corals eject their zooxanthellae, the algae they rely on for nutrients. Without zooxanthellae, corals lose their vibrant colors and eventually die off in a process known as coral bleaching. In 2016 — one year alone — an unprecedented bleaching event killed half of the coral belonging to the famous Great Barrier Reef of Australia. The event was part of a broader decline in reef populations that has been occurring over the past three decades.

At a climactic point in the future of Earth’s well-being, it will take more than a coalition of concerned scientists to curb the effects of our warming planet. But that coalition is best equipped to share precisely why humans should care, and need to care, about where Earth is headed.

Clemson researcher inspecting a coral site

CHASING CORAL

Michael Childress, an associate professor of biological sciences at Clemson University, is more than familiar with the corals and marine life that reside undersea in the Florida Keys.

For the past eight years, Childress and graduate students Kylie Smith and Kara Noonan have been studying how the changing ocean environments — including warming temperatures, hurricane disturbance, and emergent diseases — impact coral health and reef fish behaviors. Each summer, they set out to sea in the waters of the Florida Keys, diving deep below the surface to transplant corals, test water quality and study how habitat loss is otherwise affecting reef animal behaviors.

For members of the Childress Lab, their work is in part driven by a desire to share the importance of marine ecosystems with the next generation of “stewards of the earth.” Childress has 25 years of experience in mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in the methods of experimental field ecology, and Smith and Noonan have taken the baton, directing a team of undergraduate students in the Keys in studies that support their graduate research.

Their engagement stretches from the Atlantic coast back to Clemson, where they actively work to get the local community invested in matters affecting the ocean. When Hurricane Irma decimated homes and businesses along the Florida coast in August 2017, the Childress Lab gathered donations of basic necessities and delivered them to those Floridians in need. The following spring, the team hosted multiple public showings of the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, which illustrates the plight of coral decline across the world. Yet, taking their message to an audience of children was met with looming questions of “How?” and “In what way?”

“Working with schools is something we’ve always wanted to do, but we’ve never had the right resources to do it,” Smith said. “If you get to kids early enough, you can educate them about how important these habitats are and help them understand that they can make a difference no matter how far they are from the ocean.”

It was at a Chasing Coral showing, held at the Clemson University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Spring 2018, where Smith met a creative artist from the “land down under,” who had the know-how to take the team’s outreach to the next level.

AUSTRALIAN ROOTS

Kathy Prosser left an award-winning songwriting career and a booming theater production business in Australia when she relocated to the United States in 2016 with her family. Prosser’s husband had won the Diversity Visa Lottery administered through the U.S. Department of State, and her family was eager to immigrate to the U.S., where Prosser could grow her business, Educational Entertainment LLC, and impact even more children through musical theater.

The couple got started working at a park in nearby Seneca, South Carolina, before Prosser returned to her roots in songwriting and acting. In her former position, she had created and debuted a children’s musical about marine conversation titled Something Very Fishy, which Prosser successfully toured around Australia.

“After I toured it, when I went around the same areas the next year, I saw real results from this particular program, more so than from any of the other shows I’d done,” Prosser said. “One childcare center had started a recycling program in their center. Once the parents found out, they became involved, and then the entire town started a recycling program, which all stemmed from the Something Very Fishy show that I did the year before. I kept hearing similar stories everywhere I went, so I knew that the play was having an impact, it was creating change, and I knew there was something particularly special about it.”

A chance invitation from one of her piano students led Prosser to the OLLI Center the day of Smith’s Chasing Coral showing.

“At the last minute, my student couldn’t go, but I went anyway and took my husband and two of my children,” Prosser said. “I had been thinking about doing ‘Something Very Fishy’ for an American audience, but it was originally written around the Australian marine environment being the Great Barrier Reef, and I was wondering how I could rewrite it to be more relevant here.”

During a Q&A following the showing, an audience member asked the Childress Lab if it was doing outreach with local schools, and Prosser saw her opportunity:

“Afterwards, I approached Michael about it, and I told him, ‘I have this project — this play that has done very well in Australia. I have the means, but I need some kind of support to get into American schools because nobody knows who I am over here. When we joined forces, we could both achieve what we needed.”

A CLASS ACT

In the following nine months, Prosser’s impromptu idea grew into a fully immersive arts and sciences outreach program, complete with hands-on marine exhibits, demonstrations, grade-specific experiments, class resources for teachers, and a variety of other activities in support of the theme of marine conservation.

The play itself follows Sandy Carson, “an enthusiastic but somewhat naïve science major,” in her quest to study the issues facing our oceans. In contrast, the antagonist – a fisherman named Stu Pidder – is exploiting the ocean’s resources, destructively fishing and creating more problems for the environment. Through a cast of marine characters, the story highlights how what we do above the surface impacts life below.

“To some extent, both characters grow toward one another,” Prosser said. “Sandy becomes more realistic about what’s going on in the world, and Mr. Pidder becomes more aware of what harm he’s doing to the point that they can work together to help the oceans. The takeaway message is that just one little drop in the ocean from every little fish in the sea can change the turning tide.”

With the help of more than 30 undergraduate Creative Inquiry students and faculty-staff volunteers, Something Very Fishy treated more than 2,700 area K-5 students to a theater production — and then some. The students took over the Pickens Performing Arts Center, embarking on an imaginary trip to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys and the “Aquarius Undersea Laboratory,” where they learned about scuba diving, underwater photography, and growing and transplanting corals. The exhibit also included a tour backstage to meet the performers and artists, and a visit to the “Little Fishingtown” marine animal hospital, where students saw and touched live marine animals and stepped into a marine-themed photobooth.

All the while, Clemson students acted as docents, each representing a different career in marine science or art — a marine biologist, stage manager or photographer, for example — in order to challenge the one-dimensional view that children often have of science being contained to a laboratory conducted by a man wearing a white coat.

“We are trying to change the way in which students might think about science as being this unattainable, very strange career that isn’t an option for them,” Childress said. “We, as a society, don’t often portray scientists for the really unique people that they are, and that’s why this program is unique. It breaks down the boundaries between what really is science and how you can approach and think about science through art or science through theater.”

“You can do so much with a science degree,” Smith added. “Sure, you can be a doctor, but you can also be an artist or a park ranger or a dive instructor. That’s what I’m most excited about from this production, to be able to have an 8-year-old excited about the possibilities.”

At the end of the day, the children left the performance with a memorable adventure under the sea, the inspiration to change their habits and perhaps their answer to the age-old question of, “What would you like to be when you grow up?”

THE FUTURE IN OUR HANDS

Settled in the foothills of the Upstate with the Blue Ridge in the background, Clemson University is approximately 250 miles away from the South Carolina coast. Many of the town’s residents make that four-hour commute to spend summers with their toes in the ocean. Yet in the off-season, it’s easy to forget the feeling of sun-kissed skin and the tide rolling in.

For many who attended, Something Very Fishy served as a reminder that our oceans aren’t dispensable, and to the children, that they can change the course of climate change for the better.

“I had a parent come up to me and say, ‘I wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up, but I never did it. Now, I’m so inspired. I want to do something right now — seriously, right now. Today,’” Prosser said. “That was something I kept hearing from students, parents and teachers, alike: ‘We really want to do something; we didn’t understand; we knew it was a problem, but we didn’t know we were contributing to it.’”

Another parent told the story of her son, who had repeatedly asked her to use reusable shopping bags at the grocery store, yet she didn’t understand why such a simple change was necessary until Something Very Fishy depicted the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean.

“She told him after the show: ‘As soon as we get home, I’m changing that, and I’m never using a plastic bag again.’ And she thanked me because she didn’t realize what she was doing was hurting her son’s future and the state of the ocean,” Childress said.

“The plastics in the ocean seemed to particularly affect the children,” Prosser added. “When we asked them what they had learned from the show, they let us all know that there are issues with the environment and that there were things they could do to help, specifically to reduce, reuse and recycle.”

And just as the Something Very Fishy team hoped for, the children were hyperaware of the careers represented by the Clemson student docents who guided the kids throughout the center.

“Every day, I asked what the children wanted to be when they grew up, and they answered in a pattern that kind of changed from day to day,” Prosser said. “The first day, it was a scientist. The second day, many of them wanted to be veterinarians. Another day, they wanted to be actors or coral biologists — the point being that many of them wanted to go into careers they had seen highlighted in the program, which is exactly the result we were hoping to achieve.”.

While Prosser found success with the original Something Very Fishy production in Australia, the U.S. version of the play stands as proof that when science is made to be fun and creative, its message can resonate across audiences.

Surveys given to the children before and after the 2019 performance are now being analyzed to gauge the impact of the exhibit on how children view the ocean and themselves. Moving forward, the team plans to expand the reach of Something Very Fishy by including hands-on activities in the classrooms of participating schools. For now, both the Childress Lab and Prosser give thanks to one another for making the show possible.

“It was great to see that people at every level — parents, children, teachers, volunteers, university students — are concerned about the environment, and that they do want to help,” Prosser said. “At the end of the day, that’s what we need if we want to sustain the Earth.”

Hannah Halusker is a writer for the College of Science at Clemson University.

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