Where's Tango? Florida Aquarium immerses kids in mystery of missing turtle

At the heart of the immersive, interactive story that unfolds across the virtual coastline and into the deepest imaginary ocean at the Florida Aquarium’s Carol J. and Barney Barnett Learning Center is a question about the fate of a rescued female loggerhead turtle.

What happened to Tango?

The $2 million, 5,000-square-foot learning center, which opened in October, features five innovative learning spaces. Three of the rooms are designed to form an interactive set where kids in the second-eighth grades can try to figure out why Tango didn’t show up at the right time or place to lay her eggs.

The center will be used for school field trips, scout workshops, sleepovers, birthday parties, preschool classes and other student programs. It also will be used for the Florida Aquarium’s summer camps, as well as for professional development programs for teachers.

Florida Aquarium President and CEO Thom Stork says this second leg of a three-stage, $15-million upgrade is the “next step in the evolution” of the aquarium. The aquarium drew a record 720,000 visitors in the past year, and construction of the aquarium’s Mosaic Event Center is scheduled to begin next year.

“You put that on top of what is going on at Channelside, and it’s just going to be remarkable,” says Stork, referring to ongoing development spurred by the recent purchase of the Channelside Bay Plaza and the nearby Marriott Waterside by Tampa Bay Lighting Owner Jeff Vinik. “The whole complexion of this area is going to change, and we are the cornerstone.”

Putting hands on technology

Florida Aquarium VP of Education Debbi Stone says the narrative of the “Operation Tango” sea turtle mystery is structured to allow students to use a combination of technology and hands-on experiences to incorporate critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The three learning spaces – the Green Room, Coastal Florida and the Open Ocean – used in the Tango narrative incorporate striking design features meant to evoke the experience of being at a home near the shore line, on the shore line itself and under the ocean surface. 

The story begins with a video presentation in the central, “Turtle Base Tampa” hub of the “learning loop.” It progresses through each of the three rooms, where students can conduct hands-on investigation work to gather clues intended to help them develop theories about Tango’s whereabouts.

“Each room as a spirit to it,” Stone says. “We asked, ‘When they walk in, how do they feel?’”

Each room also features a 70-inch Mondopad, a wall-mounted touchscreen computer with Internet access, white-board functionality and video conferencing capability.

“I was excited to see the technology they installed in the facility,” says Carlee Chambliss Colonesso of Bradenton, who brought her 2-year-old son, Nicholas, to the learning center’s debut event. “There was a combination of learning environments that kept the program moving and would definitely keep children of different ages interested.”

Colonesso, who publishes the blog Frugal and Fun Mom, also says she appreciates the new “In My Backyard” space allotted for preschoolers, where the aquarium’s one-and-a-half-hour Aqua Tots program is conducted for kids ages 3-5 at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Capturing storytelling expertise

The Operation Tango story line and sets were developed by the Florida Aquarium education team, led by VP Stone, Director of Education Lauren Tyler and Director of Exhibits and Graphic Design Pete Colangelo. The aquarium staff worked on the Tango story concept with Orlando-based creative firm IDEAS, with guidance from chief story-telling officer and former Disney Production Executive Bob Allen.

The story line is flexible, Stone says, so that the narrative can be adapted from year to year. Without giving too much away, it is safe to assume that Tango’s adventure ends well.

In addition to the three rooms used for the Tango story, the learning center features a redesigned marine laboratory with a modern, forensics theme, as well as a room for preschool kids designed to resemble a typical Tampa Bay area backyard. 

There are hands-on touch tanks in some of the rooms, and the lab includes adjustable-height tables, microscopes and other features that allow for immersive investigation into a variety of marine science topics.

The Florida Aquarium’s education program began in 1995 and surpassed the 1 million student mark in 2013. Carol J. and Barney Barnett, long-time members of the Publix Supermarkets corporate leadership team, donated $1 million toward completion of the new learning center.

Carter Gaddis is a writer based in Tampa. He publishes the personal blog, DadScribe. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Carter Gaddis.

Carter Gaddis is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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