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Draper Journal

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium celebrates 25 years of education and inspiration

Jan 05, 2024 09:28AM ● By Katherine Weinstein

This artist’s rendering shows what the new Science Learning Center on the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium campus will look like when completed. (Photo courtesy of Loveland Living Planet Aquarium)

This year, Loveland Living Planet Aquarium will mark the 25th anniversary of its founding. In 1998, Aquarium founder and CEO Brent Andersen began educating local students firsthand about aquatic creatures and their habitats by transporting small marine animals to elementary schools in an outfitted “Aquavan.” Today, the Aquarium is the ninth largest public aquarium in the United States and attracts approximately one million visitors each year. 

With a new Science Learning Center building under construction on its campus, the Aquarium is celebrating its past and looking forward to an exciting future with expanded educational programming. 

“There will be a celebration around the 25th anniversary,” Karmel Harper, director of marketing and public relations, said. A festive gathering is still in the planning stages but will occur sometime in the late spring or early summer of 2024. 

In the meantime, construction will continue on the Science Learning Center, new animals will arrive to make their homes in the Aquarium’s habitats and the educational programs and conservation efforts already underway will carry on and expand. “We’re continuing on with what we’ve been doing– inspiring people to explore and learn about our planet,” Harper added.

The 25th anniversary is a milestone that is inspiring reflection on the part of Aquarium staff, particularly those who have been part of the organization from the beginning. Ari Robinson, currently Vice President of Education and Exhibit Design, was one of the educators who took the first “Aquavan” to area schools. 

“The Aquarium’s journey from a single outreach van to its expansive campus reflects its commitment to inspiring exploration and learning about Earth’s diverse ecosystems,” he said via email. “Its growth has turned it into a beacon of inspiration, offering immersive experiences that go beyond education to instill a deep appreciation for the beauty and fragility of life.”

Brent Andersen has dedicated himself to creating a place where people can not only learn about aquatic species, but to gain appreciation for the ways in which ecosystems are connected and encourage stewardship of the environment. His lifelong fascination with undersea life began at age 5 when his grandmother gave him a Time Life book on the subject. He later earned a college degree in marine biology and set out to make his vision into reality.

The Aquavan was just the beginning. In 2004, Andersen established a temporary prototype of the current Aquarium in a 10,000 square foot space at Gateway mall in Salt Lake City. The venture was immediately popular with long lines of visitors waiting to get in. With the support of enthusiastic sponsors, the Aquarium moved into a larger space in Sandy in 2006.

The Sandy location featured habitats and species native to Utah as well as South America and the oceans. Visiting the Aquarium was more of a hands-on learning experience than merely viewing fish behind glass. Guests enjoyed the touch tanks where they could experience the texture of a sea star or feed the stingrays. Educators brought out live creatures where people could interact with them and learn more. The education and outreach department was growing as well with more educators traveling to area schools. 

During the first year in Sandy the Aquarium drew 250,000 visitors, a number that continued to grow. The Aquarium’s popularity with the public attracted more attention from individual, corporate and foundation sponsors. One day, the Loveland Foundation approached Andersen about providing a lead gift to build a brand new facility and campus which would fully realize his vision.

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium opened its doors at its current Draper location in March 2014 with a 136,000-square-foot building housing species of flora and fauna from all over the world. Today, over 4,500 animals may be seen at the Aquarium including mammals and birds. The Aquarium’s conservation efforts have expanded to include monitoring river otters and breeding boreal toads in Utah as well as restoring coral reefs and aiding the preservation of sea turtles outside the U.S. 

In 2020, an outdoor stage formerly used by the rock band U2, was installed on the grounds and named EECO or the Ecosystem Exploration Craft and Observatory. The giant claw-like structure, lit with color-changing lights stands out against the night sky. Underneath the stage is EECO Voyager, a virtual reality experience which allows guests to explore a rainforest or take a voyage under the sea. “It can take you anywhere in the world,” Harper said. “Your experience and the educational possibilities are limitless. Every experience is filled with educational facts.” 

The Aquarium’s campus continues to grow. In 2022, ground was broken for the Sam and Aline W. Skaggs Science Learning Center. When completed, the 120,000 square foot facility will include a two-story Asian Cloud Forest Habitat, interactive science stations and exhibits, laboratories, classroom spaces, conference rooms and more. 

At the same time, the education and outreach department at the Aquarium, which began all those years ago with the Aquavan, has grown extensively. Blair Williams, associate director of education, said of her department’s future plans, “We foresee an increase in our programming. We’re ramping up for the new building.”

The education department oversees many different initiatives. Among them is the outreach program in which Aquarium educators travel to schools to teach students about various animals and the ecosystems they inhabit. “We have nine vans and 14 to 18 educators who teach in pairs,” Williams said. The vans travel to public and charter schools all over the state, including more remote schools in Southern Utah and within the Navajo Nation. 

The lessons put forth by the education team members are tailored to particular grades. “They integrate with the curriculum the kids are learning,” Williams said. “Our program has changed over the years with regard to pedagogy. It’s become more stream-lined.” 

Inspiring interest in the natural world is central to the program’s success. Students may be introduced to animals that they have never seen before such as a tenrec, a small mammal native to Madagascar, and all kinds of insects, invertebrates, tortoises, geckos, snakes and more. 

Bringing animals to the schools and seeing the look of wonder and interest in the students’ faces is something special.  “It’s something that our team really treasures,” she said of the outreach program. “It’s great to do.” 

Every day, Aquarium educators are also found outside various animal habitats in the Aquarium giving demonstrations and doing hands-on activities to teach guests young and old about the natural world.

In addition, the education department oversees school field trips and offers educational camps and EcoVenture classes. Two examples of EcoVenture class topics are identifying colors in nature for pre-schoolers and learning about the role of photosynthesis in the food chain for older students. 

Educational programming is essential to the realization of the Aquarium’s mission. As Ari Robinson stated, “My hope is that every guest who visits the Aquarium can feel the same spark of inspiration, fostering a continuous desire to explore, discover, and learn about our living planet beyond their time at the Aquarium.” 

he story of how Loveland Living Planet Aquarium grew from its humble beginnings is an extraordinary one that is not lost on members of the staff. Williams said, “It’s an incredible story. The amount of tenacity, grit and vision is just amazing. We are really proud of the Aquarium, so proud, actually. We’re really excited for the next 25 years.” 

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium is located at 12033 Lone Peak Parkway in Draper. For more information visit λ