$6M aquarium gift to fund education

Birch Aquarium

By Deborah Sullivan Brennan
Reprinted with permission of U-T San Diego.

The Birch Aquarium in La Jolla plans to introduce marine science to more children who rarely have the chance to explore the ocean, thanks to a record-tying $6 million gift that will be announced today.

The donation from Price Philanthropies in City Heights will establish an endowment to fund aquarium presentations for up to 10,000 local students each year — and to bring a three-day beach science program to sixth-grade classes in low-income neighborhoods.

“We believe students can benefit from hands-on learning. And for children from inner cities whose families are poor, this gives them an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Robert Price, president of Price Philanthropies.

In turn, those youngsters might become the next generation of environmental stewards and scientists.

“Children who have experience with the beach and the fragility of the ocean are more conscious of environmental conservation and more involved in protecting the ocean,” Price said.

The new donation is the largest gift since 1986, when the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation gave $6 million to pay for a 31,000-square-foot aquarium and ocean science center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Both Scripps and the Birch Aquarium are part of UC San Diego.

The money from Price Philanthropies covers the lion’s share of an $8.3 million endowment designed to vastly expand the aquarium’s ability to offer presentations at local schools and create a more intensive marine science program for sixth-grade students. The aquarium already has $200,000 more in hand for the endowment, and it plans to raise the remaining $2.1 million from other supporters.

“It’s a gift from the Price family to UC San Diego and to Birch Aquarium, but in a way it’s also a gift to San Diego,” said Margaret Leinen, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and vice chancellor for the UC San Diego marine sciences division.

Price said his family’s foundation has long invested in educational programs coordinated by institutions such as the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park and UC San Diego. The gift to the aquarium was a logical next step, he said.

“We feel that Birch is a very well-managed institution that can deliver an educational opportunity to children,” he said.

Price, chairman of PriceSmart, a chain of warehouse club stores in Central America and the Caribbean, also co-founded Price Club with his father, the late Sol Price. That business eventually merged with Costco.

Sol Price, who was a La Jolla resident, made multiple donations to UC San Diego — for recipients such as the Moores Cancer Center and undergraduates seeking scholarships. His contributions included a gift to help build Price Center West, a student activity and dining facility located in the heart of the university campus.

In addition, the Price family has long taken an interest in the City Heights neighborhood. It has helped to fund education programs and health and social services through its foundation, Robert Price said.

He and his wife, both native San Diegans, are U.S. Masters swimmers at UC San Diego and do open-ocean swimming off the region’s coast, so marine conservation is important to them.

“I think when you grow up in San Diego and you spend so much time in the water and know what the ocean means in our lives, it’s a natural thing to protect the ocean,” he said.

His family’s interests will be reflected in the Birch Aquarium endowment’s beach science program, which aims to let children not only gain knowledge about marine ecosystems but also put it into practice.

It will include two sessions of classroom instruction in which students will learn about the scientific method and formulate research questions, said Debbie Zmarzly, the aquarium’s interim director and its director of programming.

For the third session, the students will spend a full day at the beach to conduct field work such as testing water samples or analyzing plankton. At the end of that day, they’ll examine their data and present conclusions.

“This is a much more structured and in-depth experience that research shows has significantly increased learning outcomes for the students,” Zmarzly said.

The program will employ a postdoctoral student from Scripps to supervise instruction, as well as some graduate students to teach the sixth-grade participants about hands-on science. They in turn could pick up valuable skills in science education and communication, Leinen said.

“This is a wonderful way for students to early on start learning how to communicate about their research,” Leinen said. “So it’s very much a part of the training of modern science.”

Starting in the fall, the aquarium plans to offer the three-day program to 30 sixth-grade classes during the first academic year. Then it intends to expand to 60 classes each subsequent year.

Between the beach science curriculum and the traditional classroom presentations, the endowment will bring lessons about the ocean to thousands of children in schools that can’t afford them now, Zmarzly said.

“We’re all about providing ocean science education,” she said. “But access has been limited to those who can afford the modest program fee. (This new donation) is going to increase access dramatically, and that’s why it’s really transformational.”