All Saints students in Naperville get a special look at Shedd Aquarium’s penguins

Fourth-graders from All Saints Catholic Academy in Naperville chatted with penguin trainers and learned about the two species of the flightless birds on exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, all without leaving their classrooms.

Teachers Jean Grissinger, Jean Kovak and Noelle Stecher and their students participated in the aquarium’s Live From Behind the Scenes program, which focused on the aquarium’s Megellanic and rockhopper penguins.

In addition to the penguin session, the Shedd offers two other programs. Animal Health allows students to join the staff for a routine animal examination where the kids observe alongside Shedd’s veterinary staff as they interpret X-rays, vital signs and behavior to assess an animal’s health. The other program, called Sharks at Shedd, gives students the chance to watch how Shedd staff members feed these animals, design an identifiable tag for different shark species, and calculate how much food sandbar sharks eat.

All of the programs are 50 minutes long and are brought to students live from the animals’ exhibit or the animal hospital via Internet connection. All associated materials for the lessons are sent to the classroom teacher before the day of the lesson.

The Naperville students learned about how the trainers meet the biological and environmental needs of the birds as well as provide enrichment activities to simulate behaviors penguins experience in the wild. Through a series of activities led by learning specialists Rachel Patten and Nayiri Haroutunian, the kids were guided through skills trainers use every day, such as observation, data collection, collaboration and communication, and problem-solving.

Each of the three fourth-grade classes at All Saints had their own video feed so the kids could interact with the trainers and teaching staff directly. As such, the kids got to experience exactly what was happening from inside the penguin exhibit.

Grissinger said the students felt special because they had the full attention of the trainers. The students could see the visitors to the aquarium peering through the glass into the exhibit.

The teacher commended the staff for keeping the students active and getting all three classes involved.

“It’s a great use of technology,” Grissinger said.

Because it is mating season for the penguins, students got to hear how loud penguins can get as the birds screeched to warn the birds about territorial claims.

Halley Gardner, one of the learning specialists, said working with animals can sometimes be a challenge. She said during mating season the penguins can get a bit aggressive and tug on the rubber boots of the trainer or learning specialist as they’re trying to talk to students.

The Shedd’s Live From Behind the Scenes program started this school year. The three different sessions — animal health, penguins and sharks — are available to students in third through eighth grades. The staff tailors lessons to grades three to five and to grades six to eight.

The cost is $195 for the first program and all the materials, and it’s $95 for up to two additional programs. After the program, teachers and students are given a free family pass to visit the Shedd Aquarium. The pass is good for up to three children (ages 12 and younger) and two adults.

“Not all the boys and girls have been to the aquarium, so this will be a treat,” Grissinger said.

The Shedd staff also is willing to answer any follow-up questions students might have, so teachers are encouraged to remain in e-mail contact.

Grissinger said her students were encouraged to design and draw enrichment activities or toys for the penguins to play with in their habitat. The teachers plan to send the best ideas to the trainers.

Gardner said the trainers and learning staff enjoy getting responses from students. Sometimes the ideas are incorporated.

Gardner said the learning team works with the schools ahead of time to ensure the classroom has the right software and computer equipment needed to create the video link.

Although the Shedd staff is wrapping up this year’s program the first week of June, Live From Behind the Scenes will be back again in the fall. More information is available on the Shedd Aquarium website or by e-mailing