Watershed education focus of Explore Ecology project for students
During a boat trip in the Santa Barbara Channel, one of the students turned to Jenny Davis and said with a big grin on his face, “Have you ever had one of those days where you know it’s one of the best days of your life?”
The heartwarming remark was echoed by other participants in the Flows to the Ocean Project sponsored by Explore Ecology, a Santa Barbara nonprofit.
“Our goal is to empower the next generation of environmental stewards through hands-on watershed education,” said Mrs. Davis, education manager for Explore Ecology.
The boat trip on the Santa Barbara-based Condor Express is one of three components of the project, which is funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There are two in-class lessons, field trips and a final action project.
“We are working with 18 fourth through sixth grade classes in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria. The schools are Brandon in Goleta, Canalino and Carpinteria Family in Carpinteria, and El Camino, Laguna Blanca, Monroe, Notre Dame, Santa Barbara Community Academy and Vieja Valley in Santa Barbara,” she told the News-Press.
Before the pandemic, Mrs. Davis, assisted by her staff, Angie Ouellette, Chris Kreutzkampf and Lydia Ballantine, visited students in the classrooms to teach them about watersheds, different types of pollutants and how pollution moves in a watershed.
“They also clean up trash on their campuses,” Mrs. Davis said.
“Since schools have been closed, the lessons are done over Zoom, and each includes a hands-on activity students can do at home. For the trash cleanup, students have received individual reusable trash cleanup kits to keep. They include a bucket with instructions, reusable gloves, hand sanitizer and a mini clipboard.”
Each student also needs to complete three trash cleanups in the community such as a park, beach or neighborhood and send their data to Mrs. Davis.
“As of Jan. 31, students collected 8,470 pieces of trash,” she said. “Most of the trash on the beach is cigarette butts and pieces of plastic, and at schools, it’s food wrappers and plastic utensils.”
During field trips to the South Coast Watershed Resource Center at Arroyo Burro Beach and Bohnett Park creek, students learn about water quality by conducting tests on estuary water for acidity, dissolved oxygen and phosphate. They also learn about marine debris, which is the trash in the ocean, and storm drains, the main way trash gets into the ocean.
“One student this year performed trash cleanup before the big rainfall we had last month,” Mrs. Davis said. “Then he went out to the same place right after the rainfall and was astounded by how much more debris had come down with the rain. He was excited to be able to apply what he had learned in the lessons to his real life experience and spent several minutes telling his classmates about it at the next Zoom lesson.”
HIghlighting the project are the Condor Express boat trips from February through March during which the boat sails along the coast so students can perform water testing outside Arroyo Burro Beach and at the Goleta bay.
“Then it moves into the channel so we can look for marine wildlife. We often see humpback whales, sea lions, gray whales, common dolphins and coastal bottlenose dolphins. For many of the students, this is their first time on a boat, and they stand there with giant smiles plastered on their faces for the duration of the trip,” said Mrs. Brady, who earned her bachelor’s degree in marine biology from UC Santa Cruz and her master’s degree in marine science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
“It’s especially fun to see the class teachers jump and get really excited when a whale comes close to the boat. It’s a great experience for students to view watershed from a different perspective and create a deeper connection to the local marine environment and wildlife.”
During the pandemic, free individual boat trip tickets are being provided for students accompanied by one adult for a whale watching cruise aboard the Condor Express from March to May.
“Explore Ecology staff won’t be on board, but the boat crew will provide information on the wildlife and habitats, with followup activities by the EE staff,” said Mrs. Brady.
For their final activity, students are required to create a project to inspire, educate and empower peers and the community using what they learned during the lessons.
“Some past projects include an educational website, posters, letters to school district personnel, business owners and politicians, educational music videos and leading trash cleanups with family and friends,” said Mrs. Brady.
“Many teachers have expressed their gratitude for this program and the work we put into it. We’re also grateful to the teachers who participate — there’s quite a bit of work on their end to fulfill all the components — and, of course, to NOAA for providing this incredible opportunity for our schools and community and for our partners, the City of Santa Barbara City Creeks Division and the Santa Barbara County Project Clean Water for supporting the lessons and the Condor Express for providing discounted boat trips so students can experience the magic of being on the water and connecting with the marine life first hand.”