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British Columbia Teenage aquarium instructor shares teachable moments under the sea

Charlotte Hodges, 17, volunteers in the Wet Lab programs at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The Globe's B.C. bureau is profiling 10 young people under 20 who are doing great things in fields ranging from arts to science to activism.

Charlotte Hodges has seen the controversial documentary Blackfish about captive killer whales, and is well aware of the criticisms surrounding aquarium operations.

However, none of the furor has deterred the 17-year-old from her commitment to being a volunteer instructor at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre in Stanley Park.

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"It didn't affect my work at the aquarium," Ms. Hodges says when asked what she made of the 2013 documentary about a killer whale at Sea World and the life and treatment of penned orcas. "All I know is the stuff I do personally with the aquarium, I love and I support and I think it's for a good cause."

Volunteers have been key to the institution since it opened in 1956 with about 1,100 on duty in 2015 – roughly 400 under the age of 18. Administrators salute all their volunteers, but are particularly impressed by Ms. Hodges – the only regular-status volunteer in her area under the age of 18.

During only a year on duty, she has progressed from teaching kindergarten-aged children to teens her own age about creatures such as sea urchins, crabs, anemones, barnacles – life in the zone above water at low tide and under water at high tide.

"She just impressed everyone on her way through. Her maturity is just something that stands out," says Laura Van Doormaal, school programs co-ordinator for the aquarium.

"It's rare to see that level of maturity and professionalism from such a young person. She takes herself seriously. She takes whatever she pursues seriously."

The programs are offered in aquarium Wet Labs in which about 10,000 B.C. school children were, this year, taught about ocean ecosystems, including intertidal zones. They are part of a 40-year-old program of education. Classes tend to come once a year.

"The underlying goal for any of our programs, especially these Wet Lab programs, is to connect the students directly with the local marine, biodiversity and, of course, the ocean-conservation issues that affect these animals," Ms. Van Doormaal says.

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"Our volunteers actually facilitate experiences where the students are able to see these animals up close, but also be able to safely touch and handle these animals, with care, so they can connect on multiple levels."

Volunteers have to learn how to teach and what to teach about marine biology. On arrival in March, Ms. Hodge initially taught primary classroom programs – preschool students through Grade 3 throughout the spring. By the fall, she was teaching older students.

Dolf DeJong, vice-president of conservation and education at the aquarium, says good intentions are not enough to get a placement. Prospects are thoroughly screened and trained before they get out to work with the public. "Everybody who gets interviewed does not get a place at the aquarium," he said.

Ms. Hodges, who has been home-schooled, says she was 8 when she went to the aquarium's school programs for a visit organized by her mother. She was as intrigued by the volunteers as the creatures in the facility. "All the people there were super nice and intelligible and everything they were doing were things I wanted to learn," she said.

The interest percolated over the years and Ms. Hodges, last year, followed up by attending an orientation session at the aquarium, including an orientation effort.

She says teaching is not a one-way experience, but rather an exchange between student and instructor. "The secret to teaching, I feel, is that you both have something to give."

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Ms. Hodges said her home-schooling experience helps her with kids her own age. In class, she has never been separated by grade. "Being introduced to everybody, talking to the adults openly, and the older kids made me comfortable about talking to people of all ages. That was what my learning base was."

While she plans to keep volunteering, she wants to travel ahead of postsecondary education. "I have no place, particularly, in mind. I sort of want to go everywhere. I am hoping to be travelling and on the move for most of my life."

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