With science, seeing is believing
Local non-profits, philanthropies band together to take local schools on field trips
Trudging through the brisk morning air, a small group of fourth-graders paused occasionally to overturn rocks, examine hoof prints and to admire the very yellow belly of a newt.
They had made their way to the top of winding Page Mill Road to hike around the foothills on a field trip led by Environmental Volunteers.
The Palo Alto-based non-profit organization — in collaboration with several local educational and philanthropic groups — is providing free field trips and in-class workshops to students in the Mountain View Whisman School District as part of a pilot program aimed at boosting science and environmental learning in the Bay Area.
Although the purpose of the expedition was to observe the natural formations created by the San Andreas Fault, it seemed that there was a teachable moment around every bend of the sometimes-muddy trail.
"(It) expands upon the idea that we've been doing for 38 years," said John Armstrong, collaboration projects manager with Environmental Volunteers.
Since 1972, Environmental Volunteers has worked to provide affordable, educational opportunities to local school districts. However, Armstrong said, this latest effort is "much more deliberate, much more coordinated and much more proactive."
Prior to this collaborative program — currently only offered to fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Mountain View Whisman schools — teachers would sign up individually for workshops or field trips offered by Environmental Volunteers. The system did not foster follow up, however, and volunteers would often come into a class just once and never see the same students again.
To further confuse things, Armstrong said, there are many other non-profits in the area that offer similar kinds of educational programming. Because none of them were communicating with one another, redundancies were inevitable. Teachers might bring two or three separate groups into the classroom throughout the year, but if they all covered the same material, the students wouldn't learn much after the first visit.
"What we've achieved through this collaboration is to take the programs of five non-profits and coordinate them," said Allan Berkowitz, executive director of Environmental Volunteers. Those non-profits are the Environmental Volunteers, Santa Clara Audubon Society, Youth Science Institute, Hidden Villa and Marine Science Institute.
It makes sense, Berkowitz said, since all of the non-profits involved share the same goal: "to assist the schools in delivering quality science education."
Berkowitz said the project is able to offer free programming thanks to funding from the Morgan Family Foundation, Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation and the Microsoft Corporation. Every fourth- and fifth-grade class in the district is eligible for one in-class workshop and one field trip. Schools must pay for any programming beyond that point.
"This couldn't have come at a more opportune time," said Mary Lairon, assistant superintendent of the district. "In the recession there is just less opportunity for us to be able to fund such programs."
Armstrong said he isn't certain if the program will continue to offer field trips and workshops free of charge, but said Environmental Volunteers and its partners will continue to keep prices low. As he and Berkowitz see it, making these programs as accessible as possible is paramount.
"Science education in the public schools is severely lacking," Berkowitz said. "Schools don't have the resources to deliver adequate science education."
Environmental Volunteers pools experts from the five non-profits, runs them through a crash course on how to teach the kids and sends them into the classroom or on field trips.
The knowledge of the volunteers and the resources they bring to the classroom make for informative, engaging and tactile lessons that go above and beyond what teachers could offer.
"It's always nice to have more adults in the classroom who are experts in their field," said Chris Howden, a fourth-grade teacher at Huff Elementary.
On Nov. 1, the Environmental Volunteers conducted a workshop on plate tectonics Howden's classroom. "They definitely had the geology background that I don't have," he said.
Howden also doesn't have access to the tools the volunteers used. There was a blanket, cut into jigsaw pieces representing all of the planet's major plates; a sampling of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks; and a spring-loaded, tabletop box for demonstrating how an earthquake impacts different structures in different ways, depending on how and where they are built.
"I think they liked it a lot," Howden said of his students' reaction to the in-class presentation by Environmental Volunteers. "It was hands-on, and they got to get involved with their entire bodies."
"It's pretty cool," Miles Lang, a student in Howden's class, said of the earthquake emulator, which demonstrated that houses bolted to a foundation fare better than those that are not. It also showed how structures could sink during a temblor if they are built on top of sandy ground.
The workshop was only a primer, however. A week later, on Nov. 10, Howden's class joined Huff teacher Celina Hidalgo's class on a field trip to the Monte Bello and Los Trancos open space preserves.
The hike took students past several geologic formations, such as "pressure ridges," formed by the friction created by the North American and Pacific Plates as they slide past one another along the San Andreas Fault.
One of the volunteers, Nina Brooks, identified a rock made of calcite, which she told the children had most likely formed millions of years ago in the ocean. She produced a tiny bottle of hydrochloric acid and dropped a bit of the solution on the rock, making it bubble in a fizzy chemical reaction.
Justin Valestra, one of Hidalgo's students, said it was "amazing to see that rocks from all the way back in the ocean could end up on this hill."
Although Justin said he was familiar with many of the concepts Brooks was describing, he said being able to observe the geologic formations helped.
"If I see it in person I can understand it better," he said.
For Persia Fakhr, another of Hidalgo's students, the field trip was less about science and more about getting outdoors. "The mountains look beautiful from far back," she said, before turning her attention to a moss-covered tree and exclaiming, "Cool!"
Marc Burton, another volunteer on the hike, said that teachable moments are always plentiful on the Environmental Volunteers' field trips.
"Through the joy of discovery they are introduced to the outside world," Burton said of the children. "I don't think there is anything more important than teaching kids to be good stewards of the environment."