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From budgeting to walking skunks, Duluth educator promotes engagement at the aquarium

Golden trevally fish swim by as Sarah Erickson, learning and engagement director at the Great Lakes Aquarium, explains to a group of guests details about the fish and other species in the Shipwrecks Alive exhibit Wednesday afternoon. Erickson recently won an award from the Minnesota Association for Environmental Education. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Moon jellyfish at the Great Lakes Aquarium placidly swim around their tank. The tiny hairs, called cilia, beat and propel the jellyfish through the water. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
One-year-old Colt Stevenson (left) and his brother Gunnar, 3, of Dillon, Colo., marvel at the big fish, including a grouper (top) in the Shipwrecks Alive exhibit at the Great Lakes Aquarium on Wednesday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Gary Swedberg (left) and Colleen Flaherty gently touch the bells of moon jellyfish in a hands-on exhibit at the Great Lakes Aquarium on Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Sarah Erickson of the Great Lakes Aquarium holds a toy zebra shark as she explains the habits of fish in the Shipwrecks Alive tank at the Great Lakes Aquarium on Wednesday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Sarah Erickson explains where the stinging cells are located on jellyfish to Gary Swedberg of St. Paul and Colleen Flaherty of St. Peter, Minn., at the moon jellyfish tank at the Great Lakes Aquarium on Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Standing outside the moon jellyfish tank, Sarah Erickson lifted a glass jar with a mystery material inside. When asked what it was, she redirected, "What do you think it is?"

Sparking curiosity and discussion is one part of Erickson's job as the learning and engagement director at the Great Lakes Aquarium. And it's interesting to see where conversations go, she said.

She recently received this year's non-formal educator award from the Minnesota Association for Environmental Education, a nonprofit that advances environmental education throughout the state.

Erickson, who didn't know she had been nominated, got an email containing the letters submitted on behalf of her nomination.

"I definitely was sitting at my kitchen table crying in appreciation for all the kind words from people in a field that I really respect as leaders, as community members.

"I recognized, in the scope of things, that it's not a Nobel Peace Prize, but I like that there's recognition for the work we do in the state," she said.

Turns out the mystery material in the jar was a plastic bag, she said, and marine plastics look a lot like jellyfish, which can be confusing for wildlife who will consume them.

The conversation can turn to reusable bags and beeswax Saran wrap, she said, holding up examples.

The point isn't to scare people, but to encourage a connection, she said.

Being amazed by the world is the beginning of thinking about helping the environmental, taking action in the community and being a good steward of your resources.

Originally from New Hampshire, Erickson moved to Duluth to attend graduate school for environmental education at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She was drawn to the field by a fascination with the outdoors and how the world works, as a kid exploring the woods and then leading canoe trips after college. She has worked at the aquarium since 2005.

She wears many hats. Along with exhibit design, Erickson is in charge of educational programming, grant writing, team support, interacting with people on the floor.

She might be working on budgets, leading presentations or walking skunks, which she was doing before a recent visit from the News Tribune.

That you could spend your life talking to people about the natural world, thinking of ways to combine art, science, humanities and psychology together, "I never would've imagined that this was a career," she said.

It can be challenging at times to meet everybody's expectations and needs at the not-for-profit, but what lies ahead is a focus on accessibility and inclusion. They have programming plans for people on the autism spectrum, individuals with vision or hearing impairment and more, she said.

At the moon jelly touchpool, two people rinsed their hands before dipping two fingers in to touch the otherworldly invertebrates highlighted with a blue light and a black backdrop.

"We touch the top, the bell," she directed them.

They felt firm and smooth to the touch. The jellyfish pulsated under guests' fingertips before moving through the water.

With exhibits like this one, the education team is trying to provide tactile moments so people can experience these species for themselves. This nurtures curiosity about life — for life.

We sometimes get the curiosity smooshed out of us, Erickson said. "It's important to foster that connection, recognizing that we are part of the natural world."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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