Shedd Aquarium announces new lakefront learning center, expanded outreach in South, West side neighborhoods

Plans for the new Morgridge Family Lakeside Learning Studios were unveiled Friday, along with an expansion of the Shedd’s youth education programs in South and West side neighborhoods. The learning center, she added, will serve about 300,000 young people very year.

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Janet Larios, 18, speaking at an event outside the Shedd Aquarium on Friday, June 14, 2024.

Janet Larios, 18, speaking Friday outside the Shedd Aquarium.

Layla Brown-Clark/Sun-Times

Janet Larios always thought of herself as an artistic person, maybe a writer.

Until, that is, the 18-year-old from Belmont Cragin became in intern at the Shedd Aquarium.

Working at the Shedd “inspired more of a scientific part of me,” she said, sparking “my curiosity for marine life and the ocean.”

Now, even more young people in Chicago will have the chance she had, thanks to a new learning center scheduled to open next to the Shedd in 2026.

Plans for the new Morgridge Family Lakeside Learning Studios were unveiled Friday, along with an expansion of the Shedd’s environmental education programs for youth in South and West side neighborhoods. The learning center, she added, will serve about 300,000 young people very year, said Bridget Coughlin, president and CEO of the Shedd Aquarium.

“It means more eye-to-eye moments with penguins and red-footed tortoises, more virtual conversation with our researchers out in the Great Lakes, Central America, and the Caribbean,” Coughlin said at Friday’s announcement, held on the lakefront outside the aquarium.

“We are overjoyed.”

The learning center will have classrooms that can host animal encounters and aquatic investigations. The Morgridge Family Foundation donated $10 million toward its construction.

Also attending the event were sponsors, and donors and Chicago teenagers from the Shedd’s Teen Council, an outreach program. Members meet monthly. More information, including how to join, is available on the aquarium’s website.

The expanded neighborhood efforts will include partnering with schools and community groups on educational programs. The Shedd wants to bridge what it calls “the growing nature gap” — that is, the fact that “young people do not enjoy equal access to nature and its many benefits,” according to the museum.

The outreach will focus on the South and West sides in part because they include communities that tend to live farther from nature and bear disproportionately greater environmental burdens.

After the announcement, the Shedd hosted a block party for children and parents — a preview of what the expanded education initiative will do for students. Children spent time at a variety of booths where they could produce art projects, construct model animal habitats and use microscopes to see tiny organisms.

Staffing many of the booths were teens who, like Larios, are Shedd interns. Others were part of the Teen Council.

Eleanor Ghogomu, 15, of Evanston, and Naiyah Taylor, 18, from Evergreen Park, are on the Teen Council’s Conservation Committee.

“The experiences that we’ve been open to have broadened my horizons to the possibilities of conservation, what the Shedd Aquarium does, and the opportunities that allow for students to interact with.” Taylor said.

Ghogomu, meanwhile, will be in the Shedd’s Teen Work Study program this summer, learning about the aquarium’s mission while being exposed to potential jobs at the Shedd.

“I’m really looking forward to that,” she said. “Of course, this day by the lake has been incredible.”

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