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The New England Aquarium’s Internship Program for Teens: From Positive Youth Development to Becoming an Ocean Steward

By Liz Georgakopoulos

Image by David Clode

Notes from the Editor

Programs dedicated to nourishing the development of youth as earth stewards must first of all be positive youth development programs supporting the development of youth’s emerging identities as future adults who are comfortable being themselves and contributing to society – identities defined in a variety of ways, including ways having to do with gender, sexuality, race,  ethnicity, faith, work interests, and life mission.  In the following account of the New England Aquarium’s intern program for teens, we see this theme of supporting positive youth development and identity quite clearly.  And within this context, we see teens becoming embedded in a culture of ocean stewardship, one that gives teens responsibility for caring for and communicating about the ocean and one that can have profound effects leading to the development of the teens’ identity as ocean stewards.


The teen internship program at the New England Aquarium dates back to 1992 when funding first became available for summer jobs for teenagers in Boston.  After a slow start of two interns in 1992 and an increase to 10 interns in 1996, the popularity and funding fell into place partially due to Boston being the subject of a case study by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  Changes implemented from that case study allowed the program to expand to 95 teen interns during the summer of 2000.  In time, the program evened out to providing 70-80 teen internship positions each summer, positions which provide teens with meaningful work and which are spread over ten departments throughout the Aquarium.   And while the program has changed over time, its original intent remains the same, namely, to provide teens with meaningful jobs and connect them to the ocean in ways that can lead to their becoming life-long ocean stewards.  

Before beginning work at the Aquarium, interns and their parent(s) or guardian attend a Family Orientation, a two hour evening event where the teens meet their supervisors and coworkers, learn more about the program, and hear from program alumni.  The three days of training that follow orientation focus on team building and the New England Aquarium’s mission and culture.  

Connecting to the ocean is core to the mission, and so teens are given time to explore the Aquarium’s exhibits and learn more about climate change and its effects on the ocean.  During this time of getting to know the Aquarium, teens meet the Teen Office staff, their department supervisors, and staff members from across the institution — all to help teens feel a part of this unique workplace community.  Splitting time between the larger group of 70-80 teens, and the smaller group assigned to their specific department, the teens start to form bonds and learn more about how they fit into the mission of the New England Aquarium.  At the end of training, teens are ready to learn the jobs they will be doing and meet other program requirements such as attending Career Skills Class (CSC) for first year teens, College Workshop (CW) for second year teens, and an Environmental Stewardship Trip (EST) for all teens.

Many of the teens are given responsibility for educating visitors to the Aquarium about the ocean.  And for many, explaining the ocean becomes a means for developing themselves as ocean stewards.  For example, one intern, Sam, began his career at the Aquarium as a shy, fourteen-year-old reluctant to speak unless he was sure that he knew what he was speaking about.  And so, it came as a shock when one of the New England Aquarium’s staff handed Sam a giant rostrum of a sawfish – the long, saw-like cartilaginous protrusion that the sawfish uses to slice up his prey. He was given a card with only a few guidebook-notes on sawfish, then told to go around and engage people by showing them the rostrum and telling them about sawfish. And he did it!  — at first shyly and reluctantly but, after a while, with confidence and enthusiasm as he came to realize that people were happy simply experiencing the wonder of the sawfish rostrum.

Experiences such as this led gradually to Sam’s taking a special interest in explaining nature and problems associated with the ocean. The staff coached him on using a technique that begins with the speaker eliciting wonder in visitors and then going on to sneaking in talk about some serious issue. Later, he said, “Before that became my job, I hated talking in front of people. Then, after a while, I thought, oh, this isn’t that bad; I’m talking about coral reefs, not talking in front of a great deal of people.” By his third summer working at the Aquarium, Sam felt so good about his speaking to visitors, he asked if he might take on something much bigger, a ‘giant ocean tank talk’ often given by a staff member – a talk that takes place at the very top of the Aquarium’s giant ocean tank and usually has well over 100 people as an audience. According to Sam, it is no coincidence that years after finishing his internship days at the Aquarium, he is headed to a prestigious doctoral program in ecology and marine biology, where he hopes to further our knowledge of how marine life can adapt to climate change. For Sam, it was his years interning at the Aquarium that set him on this career path that so clearly defines him as an ocean steward.

Developing a positive identity while interning was also a theme for (Maria) Alex (pronouns they/them/theirs) – a positive identity that included a non-binary way of defining gender. During their[1] sophomore year at TechBoston Academy in 2016, Alex applied for and was given a position in the Gift Shop, the most easily recognizable job description the Aquarium offers.

For their first summer at the New England Aquarium, Alex was slated to work twenty-five hours per week in the gift shop, two of which were spent in a career skills class with twenty other interns.  In the class, Alex developed a number of skills important for succeeding later on, in particular, skills for writing a resume, for creating one’s own budget, for presenting on social media, and for effectively participating when being interviewed.

But what about the ocean and ocean stewardship?  To help teens begin to internalize the Aquarium’s culture and mission, every Teen Intern takes a trip to a local ecosystem.  Alex took a trip with a few other teen interns to Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center, which sits on the Merrimack River and abuts the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, an incredible salt marsh area where the Ipswich, Merrimack and Parker Rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean.   While at Joppa Flats, the group explored the salt marsh during low tide – all the while learning about how early settlers used their scythes to harvest marsh grass to feed their livestock (pictured below, see Alex with scythe).  They explored the different animals that call the salt marsh home — including snails and crabs in the upper marsh area.  

For Alex, who had been working shifts in the Gift Shop without much access to learning about the animals, ecosystems and exhibits, this trip provided a pivotal moment.  Alex had applied to the Aquarium because of their interest in the ocean, but before the trip, had not been able to make that connection for themselves.  After the trip, Alex said, “I had the best day.  I got to be on a salt marsh and learn about a whole new ecosystem right underneath my feet, I got to watch birds and observe marsh life for the first time!”. Giving teens this kind of access to the ocean and its surroundings —  to explore and make their own connections — helps build future ocean stewards.  

Following this first summer as an intern, Alex’s interest in the ocean and exploring new habitats and ecosystems led them to apply for the Academic Year Internship – and for subsequent summers as an intern.  All told, Alex worked three summers and three academic years in three different departments and positions – the most significant one being a position in the “Behind-the-Scenes” (BTS) department – working in animal care. 

When applying for a position in the BTS department, Alex  had to sit through four two-hour long classes and complete two job shadows in one of our animal care areas.  Upon completing the application process, Alex worked for a school year in the West Wing gallery which encompasses the Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank.  There, Alex learned how to care for the animals, care that included doing food prep, which for the Shark and Ray Touch Tank meant preparing at least 10 pounds of food for the sharks – Alex describes one experience during food prep as follows: “Something about cutting cold fish early in the morning really put me at ease. Anyway, I was cutting up squid, and I was holding the squid a bit tighter than normal because the squid was super slimy. The squid’s eye burst right on my face and glasses. Super gross.” Though gross was the word used, Alex’s smile and happy way of recounting this experience indicated it was all part of connecting with the ocean – both literally and emotionally.

Alex is currently at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.  They initially entered as a computer science major, but influenced by the internship experience at the Aquarium, Alex has changed their major to environmental studies.  “My Aquarium experience is interwoven in everything that I do— whether it’s thinking a little more consciously about buying locally or how I speak when I’m at an interview. The Aquarium helped me grow and develop in ways I wouldn’t have been able to grow on my own.”  

Alex now carries within the knowledge as well as personal, professional and water experiences gained as an intern – in deep and lasting ways that insure a life-time of love of the ocean and ocean animals.  A host of other former teen interns tell similar stories – of their teen internship experiences at the Aquarium leading them to develop their identity as someone with a lifelong personal mission to protect and care for our blue planet.

Liz Georgakopoulos is Teen Programs Supervisor for the New England Aquarium, Boston, Massachusetts


[1] The use of the pronoun “their” to sometimes refer to an individual follows current practice of embracing diversity around gender identity – so that we support positive identity development and become a more inclusive society.

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