How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Molly Adams doesn’t have a classroom, but she’s got a van and sea urchins.

Both are indispensable for Adams, an outreach coordinator for the New York Aquarium who travels the city to teach kids about ocean conservation.

Her in-class field trips are purposely low-tech — Adams never knows what to expect when she walks into a school with little more than a canvas bag to hold her materials. But she said students usually don’t mind as long as they get to hold a horseshoe crab or even build a kelp forest out of strips of car wash buffers (an idea she got from the aquarium’s otter trainers, who use the material to make toys).

“It’s bringing the beach, basically, to the classroom,” she said.

PHOTO: courtesy photo
Molly Adams with her teacher’s helper

Adams is not a teacher in the traditional sense: She didn’t study education and she’s not certified to be in the classroom. Still, she follows state learning standards when she dreams up lessons, which she presents to students from pre-K up through middle school. As an employee of the aquarium, her class visits are paid for by the schools or through grants.

Her favorite lesson was created with the help of Science Friday, the popular public radio show that offers a six-month training for teachers. Working with educators from across the country, Adams developed a virtual scuba diving experience for students to learn about coral bleaching, which happens when warmer water causes otherwise colorful corals to turn white and potentially die. She began scuba diving with her father when she was 10 years old and says she wanted to create that experience for people who don’t know what being underwater feels like.

Here’s what she had to say about what led her to the classroom, how she adapts her lessons for students in different grades, and how she encourages kids to act “as a naturalist.”

How do you describe your non-traditional role in the classroom? Do you consider yourself a teacher?

I consider myself a teacher, and most teachers would consider me an informal educator. I’m currently the Outreach Coordinator at the New York Aquarium which requires me to develop and teach marine conservation curriculum for 3K and up. I’m stationed at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium, but travel to schools, libraries, and community centers to provide hands on experiences on-site, many of which have live invertebrates such as horseshoe crabs, sea urchins, and hermit crabs.

Was there a moment you decided to go into education?

While I was an undergraduate student at Pratt Institute, I wrote a thesis about natural history museums and the ways in which they can visually communicate ecology. While interning as a docent at the Brooklyn Museum, studying different ways that people engage with the natural world, and developing a new love for bird watching, I realized that one-on-one or small group guided, immersive experiences in the natural world were the ways that I learned about and appreciated my environment the most.

Tell us about a favorite lesson. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite lesson so far has been the resource I developed as a part of Science Friday’s Educator Collaborative. In this lesson, students get to explore virtual coral reefs while performing “field work” from their own classroom. The idea came from the feeling that I get each time I go scuba diving, which is the desire to replicate the experience of being underwater in a coral reef. Luckily, the Ocean Agency and NOAA had the same idea and have created 360 images and Google street views that allow people on land to explore these different habitats. Science Friday was also able to get underwater recordings to create an auditory immersion in the reef. The idea evolved to incorporate data collection through virtual field work, which is something that I wish I had more opportunities to experience doing in school.

How do you adapt your lessons to all the different age ranges you work with? Are there big differences from grade level to grade level?

I am mostly guided by NY state science standards, but reading and writing seem to separate a lot of my lessons. 3K and PreK have a lot of movement, storytelling, and sensory exploration, while second grade and up still have a lot of hands-on experience but also more open inquiry that involves reading and writing. Live animals or biofacts (parts of animals that used to be alive) play a large unifying role across grade bands.

What’s the key to making scientific concepts accessible to kids?

I tend to focus on how to get kids interested in asking their own questions and acting as a naturalist. Training kids to make observations and be more aware of their surroundings is helpful in understanding the natural world and navigating everyday life.

What object would you be helpless without during a lesson?

Natural objects and animals are in all of the lessons I teach and without them, I wouldn’t be able to engage students in conservation. One of my earliest memories is holding a horseshoe crab for the first time in a marine science summer camp on Long Island, and I think that facilitating an important moment like that for students within their classrooms in New York City is really special.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Not being familiar with the space and audience of most of my classes is pretty challenging but is also an exciting part of my job. Getting to see new schools and meet new people almost every day is an incredible way to learn about the city you live in and the way people perceive their environment.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to the classroom?

That my lessons would be considered boring without the use of technology or the opportunity to go outside. At my first teaching job, I mostly led bird and nature walks outdoors. It has been a challenge to replicate a similar experience indoors, but there are a lot of different ways to bring elements of the natural world inside.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

To always amplify and guide the act of discovery in your audience. Rather than telling your students an awesome fact, giving them the tools to figure it out on their own is much more gratifying and memorable.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s an incredible privilege to work with live animals and important to know that they are not props for teaching. Encouraging students to treat horseshoe crabs and other marine invertebrates with respect can have a lasting impact on the ways in which they engage with the natural world. Building conservation lessons around animals and empathy is something that is very necessary for the next generation of stewards in our ever-changing world.