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March 24, 2010 > Bringing science to life

Bringing science to life

By Simon Wong
Photos By Simon Wong

New Haven Unified School District's (NHUSD) "Bringing Science to Life for Students, Teachers and the Community" program, served 128 fifth grade students and four teachers in its first year, 2006-07. Funded primarily by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Bay-Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) Program, this program is gaining strength.

Union Sanitary District, Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge, Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley, and Starbucks are now grant partners.

"Prior to 2008, 5th grade students at Alvarado and Cabello Elementary Schools consistently scored in the bottom 20 percent of the California State Standards Test for science. Teachers in the upper grades reported not spending enough time teaching science, due to lack of time, resources or knowledge of science," explained Kim Pratt, Science Specialist at Alvarado Elementary School, Union City.

"The NOAA B-WET grant and funding from our grant partners address these concerns and instill a sense of stewardship in our students. This program engages and energizes students in learning science and the protection of the SF Bay Watershed, provides staff-development for teachers and educates the community about conservation of our local watershed.

"The project includes a preparation phase, outdoor phase, an analysis and reporting phase, and teacher training and consists of two complete units - the San Francisco Bay Watershed Unit and Marine Environment Unit. At the end of the three-year program, teachers were teaching more science, the community was engaged in conservation of the San Francisco Bay Watershed and most importantly, student scores increased on the California Science Test at Alvarado by more than 80 percent and at Cabello by 120 percent," added Pratt who is the driving force behind the program.

Four-hour field trips in the Bay are provided by the 40-year old, non-profit Marine Science Institute (MSI), Redwood City, through its Discovery Voyage program. Students, staff, such as Math-Science teachers Keith Guernsey and Matt Speakman, and some parents spend a morning or afternoon aboard the 90 ft., research vessel Robert G. Brownlee.

MSI provides life jackets and, once aboard, briefs students about health and safety and familiarizes them with emergency procedures and basic terms, such as bow, stern, port and starboard. This is followed by a program briefing during which students must think about what they might expect to find and learn. The students are divided into three groups. Each is assigned a research scientist who remains with and mentors the same group for the entire trip. Most of the scientists who mentor school groups are female and positive role models for young girls who might one day settle upon a scientific career.

What is commonly known as the San Francisco Bay is actually an estuary containing brackish water, a mixture of salt water entering from the Pacific Ocean via the Golden Gate Passage and fresh water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, rainfall and treated-water discharge from sewage treatment plants. Adult marine life cannot survive indefinitely in brackish habitats but their young thrive, rendering the Estuary a "nursery," an ideal spawning ground with natural protection from adult predators.

The research vessel has three stations - Plankton Ecology & Hydrology at the bow, Benthic Ecology (bottom sediment/mud) on the port side and Ichthyology (fish trawl) at the stern.

At the Plankton Ecology & Hydrology station, students collected surface and deep water samples and measured and compared salinity, temperature and density to confirm or refute hypotheses about each physical attribute at different depths. Given that the Estuary is only 10 ft. deep, the temperature difference between surface and bottom is less marked than in the ocean. A drop of a plankton sample was examined under a video microscope and teemed with life; students identified what they saw. Plankton consists of "drifters" so small they must flow with the current - plant life (phytoplankton), animal life (zooplankton) and larvae (meroplankton).

Students deployed a Peterson benthic grab to obtain a bottom sediment sample which they rinsed through screens to remove sediment before examining invertebrates left behind. These included tube worms, shells and crabs. Plants and stone fragments were also present. Concepts about invertebrate life and evolutionary adaptations for survival (predator/prey relationships) were discussed, illustrated by what had been caught. Additionally, the students were anointed as members of the "Mud Club" using the mineral-rich mud they had collected.

At the Ichthyology station, students deployed a 16 ft. otter trawl (fishing net) and caught fish including flounder and a bat ray. A leopard shark was already on board. The catch was divided between students who, with the aid of dichotomy charts, identified what was before them. They discussed and identified how different fish have adapted to their habitats and what features enable them to feed or prey.

The closing session brings the three stations together - everything is related, dependent upon something else, nothing disappears completely and Earth has limited resources - and examines humans' position in the ecosystem. Students constructed a "Trash Timeline" based on how long it takes common consumer-disposables to decompose. A waxed-milk carton takes three months to degrade; rope, three to 14 months; a sock, one to five years; wood, three to 10 years; plastic bags, 10 to 20 years; tin cans, 50 to 70 years; a "disposable" diaper, 450 years; glass, a million years to indefinitely; plastic bottles, indefinitely... Although refuse might break into small pieces, the latter pollute the environment for many years. It is important to dispose of, or recycle, unwanted items correctly to conserve scarce natural resources such as the San Francisco Estuary.

"Currently, around 1,800 4th and 5th grade students (including special education) and 28 teachers from Alvarado Elementary and Cabello Elementary Schools benefit from the NHUSD program," stated Pratt. "We received another NOAA B-WET grant of $57,000 that allowed us to expand our program to Pioneer Elementary students in 2009-10."

NHUSD's "Bringing Science to Life for Students, Teachers and the Community" program and MSI's Discovery Voyage program utilize a natural resource on the region's door-step to give science-education context and relevance so that youngsters not only perform better in school but might become future protectors and custodians of the natural environment.

For more information, visit (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and (Marine Science Institute).

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