The Program

Tennessee Aquarium is always seeking ways to provide unique views of life above and below the surface of the water, as well as create meaningful experiences both within, and outside of, the Aquarium that spark curiosity and a desire to get out and explore nature. To that end, Backyard Wilderness 3D was scheduled for the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater's spring break time frame. This film was perfectly aligned with the Aquarium’s mission to “connect people with nature and empower them to make informed decisions about water and wildlife.” The Aquarium also knew that this film featured many species that are found in the backyards of many of its guests.

Team members from education, husbandry, conservation, and marketing were able to create a “Backyard Scientist” theme for the spring break programs and highlight new research that was being performed by the Aquarium’s scientists working out of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. From the initial concepts, they were able to add additional layers of programs and special events that are still unfolding today.

Backyard Wilderness 3D helps to shine a light on natural behaviors that often go overlooked or unnoticed. During the Aquarium’s “Backyard Scientist” spring break programs, guests were introduced to a vast array of animals from the biologically abundant southeastern United States. The Aquarium’s cast of stars includes Velcro, a Southern Flying Squirrel. Andrew Young—the film’s co-director, producer, and director of photography—witnessed Velcro in action during his visit to Chattanooga for the premiere of the film and saw how enthralled an auditorium full of students became as Velcro demonstrated incredible gliding skills. The kids were amazed that these nocturnal animals were probably living in their own backyards but are rarely seen due to their reclusive habits.

“Programs like this help reinforce the notion that people are part of a complex ecosystem and share their home with incredible native wildlife,” says Dr. Brooke Gorman, the Aquarium’s Director of Science Education. “This kind of environmental education is very important for people, especially young children. It provides them with a connection to nature and the outdoors that many kids aren’t getting today with video games and TV and everything else they do. The more people can connect with nature, the more they really care about it and the more they want to take conservation actions.”

Additional Opportunities and Connections

But the opportunities for engagement didn’t stop with spring break programs involving animal ambassadors. The Aquarium’s education department developed programs to get kids and their families out in the field with Dr. Josh Ennen to help collect spotted salamanders for a scientific research project, along with featuring backyard creatures in special “Nature Nuts” programs. The connections continued through the Aquarium’s summer camp programs, which included film screenings with fun and engaging activities. The Aquarium also delivers a large number of outreach education programs at schools, public libraries, and special events, and many of these are focused on native wildlife while others cover species from backyards around the world.

Currently, the Aquarium’s education staff is in the process of developing SPARK programs (Science Practices at the Aquarium for Real-world Knowledge). These new programs will be piloted in the spring, offering students the opportunity to handle preserved fish specimens. “These kids will learn how scientists identify and classify a wide variety of native fishes that were collected from the South Chickamauga Creek, a very diverse watershed that runs through backyards of many of the nearby schools,” Gorman says. “This helps them not only appreciate the remarkable animals living nearby, but they’ll also become immersed in critical thinking during this scientific exploration.” Schools will have the option to add Backyard Wilderness as a “Teacher’s Choice” film before a SPARK program.

The Advantages of Pairing Films and Programs

Tennessee Aquarium always tries to connect IMAX films to special programs or exhibits, but Backyard Wilderness was so directly connected with its mission and addressing “nature deficit disorder” that there were a lot of opportunities to build upon existing programs or create additional touchpoints to inspire guests. Through its animal ambassador programs, they were able to reach a lot of guests not only during spring break but through the entire run of the film, and they will have renewed opportunities to reach more students with SPARK in the spring of 2019.

The Tennessee Aquarium is uniquely positioned to maximize the themes of films like Backyard Wilderness to create a domino effect. Many people in the Southeast may not encounter a live Virginia Opossum, but providing the chance to get up close and interact with these fascinating creatures while talking with trained experts helps many people overcome fears and better understand the critical role possums play. “To me, having wildlife in your yard enriches our lives so much,” says Dave Collins, the Aquarium’s Director of Forests and Animal Behavior. “We have things in our backyards to observe and enjoy. The programs we offer helps provide a fuller appreciation of wildlife and how animals improve our lives.”

Things to Consider

“Like any film release, the key to success lies in having time to understand the connections to our animals and exhibits,” says Thom Benson, Director of External Affairs for the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater. With enough lead time, we might have been able to develop even more programs. We try to incorporate our mission and experts in as many film launches as possible. While we love to have a robust media kit from film companies, it really helps our media coverage when we can connect a film with our talented experts.”


For more information about the program, please contact Thom Benson at