August 2010: Teaching Teens to WATCH the Environment
When the Monterey Bay Aquarium sought to expand its environmental education efforts, it found a good match in the Watsonville area along the coast of Monterey Bay, California.
"We were very interested in Watsonville because of the many well-established grassroots environmental organizations in the community and the brand new environmentally-focused high school," said Rita Bell, director of education programs at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In addition, a study of the Watsonville/PajaroValley community revealed the need for educational and recreational opportunities for high school students.
"Teachers, parents, and kids reported that there were a lot of fun and educational activities after school for elementary age kids, but there was hardly anything for high school kids to do — and definitely not much that was related to the environment," explained Bell.
To meet these needs, the Monterey Bay Aquarium developed the Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats (WATCH) program, in partnership with Pajaro Valley High School (PVHS) and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. The program launched in summer 2006 to provide high school students with opportunities to explore and study local riparian, wetland, and dune habitats. PVHS was an ideal partner because it sits adjacent to 100 acres of freshwater wetland in an area called the Watsonville Sloughs (pronounced "slews") in southern Santa Cruz County. California has lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands to development, and the sloughs — one of the largest remaining freshwater marshlands along the coast — provide a resting place for many species of migrating birds and filters water draining into the bay.
In 2007, the Monterey Bay Aquarium expanded the pilot program to the entire high school with the support of a $149,947 Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Exploring in Class and in the Field
The project’s goals were to educate students about the local watershed and related conservation issues, empower them to feel more connected to their community and engage in positive change, and expose them to science and conservation-related careers.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium worked with 40 PVHS teachers and administrators to offer three learning programs: a year-long class, a field trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and a summer field session.
The WATCH Environmental Science Elective was an after-school class taught by PVHS faculty and Monterey Bay Aquarium educators. Each week during the school year, the class met three times for about 4.5 hours. On weekends, many of the students and Monterey Bay Aquarium educators completed field activities and gathered data for their projects. Students learned environmental science while they completed group projects focused on conservation issues in their community. Monterey Bay Aquarium staff matched each group with mentors and community partners for assistance.
Another activity was Freshman Day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in which the entire freshman class — 350 students — visited over two days in February. The event gave the students a chance to realize their personal connection to the ocean. During the visits, three WATCH alumni shared their projects.
The last activity during the grant period was the three week WATCH summer session, during which students studied habitats and worked on restoration projects. Students were divided into three teams to explore riparian, wetland, and dune habitats. The groups learned about each habitat, the ways in which each is connected to the watershed, and the conservation efforts that are underway. Students began WATCH in the summer and then worked on a group project during the following school year.
"The summer experience really gets the students out into the field and acquaints them with the environment up and down the Pajaro River," said Bell. "Many of these kids have lived in Watsonville for their entire lives, but they’ve never had an opportunity to explore the river or where the river empties into the ocean."
The program’s achievements reflect its effectiveness. During the 2007–08 school year, 16 students took the WATCH Environmental Science class. The students completed six group projects, including "What is the source and impact of marine debris on Monterey Bay?" and "How do humans impact sea otter health and behavior?" In April, the student groups submitted scientific posters describing their projects to the Currents Symposium, which was sponsored by Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. One group won first place in the high school competition. In May, all WATCH students presented their projects at a seminar held at the Monterey Bay Research Institute.
"The projects begin in September with a question or concern the students have about the environment. They continue throughout the school year with data collection, analysis, discussion and conclusions," explained Bell. "Along the way students develop critical thinking, communication, time management, and leadership skills. WATCH has helped launch many college careers."
Students completing the summer program received a $500 scholarship. Students also received academic credit for the class and an additional $500 college scholarship.
Many of the groups continued their projects beyond the end of the 2007-08 school year. One project led to the creation of a permanent recycling program at PVHS, and another created an organic community garden at the school.
The summer session is the hook to pull the students into the school-year program — and it’s quite effective. All 26 students from the 2008 summer session enrolled in the course for 2008-09. Through WATCH, participants provide hundreds of hours of service to the community — many more than the 40 hours required for graduation.
In response to surveys about their WATCH experiences, students indicated that they gained knowledge, skills, and confidence. One wrote, "This has made me realize how important it is to conserve and take care of our watershed and the animals that live in it." The program even inspired one girl to apply for a scholarship to an educational expedition to Antarctica. She was one of 10 students selected nationwide and traveled there in December 2009.
One independent reviewer wrote, "The WATCH program is a success in terms of increasing participants’ knowledge about the Pajaro River Watershed and improving their view of their relationship with the local natural environment."
Challenges and Lessons Learned
Project leaders faced challenges trying to integrate the project into the school system and its curriculum. Another difficulty was staff turnover at the school and the district office and at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
"Every time the staff changes, you need to build new relationships and make sure that everyone understands the goals and mechanics of the program. It requires constant communication among all of the players," said Bell.
The partners had also hoped to help WATCH graduates gain internships at the Monterey Bay Aquarium or in the community, but the students lacked the time and transportation to do that. Another challenge was keeping the mentors attuned to the needs of high school students. To address this, the partners created a mentor training program that emphasizes youth development and clearly articulates the roles of mentors.
A Growing Program
After the IMLS grant ended in July 2008, the program continued to make strides. The school-year class is now offered during the school day instead of after school, making it accessible to more students. WATCH also received grant funding from Nokia to purchase some smart phones, which they are integrating into program activities. Students use the phones to document their observations in the field and take photos, which they later incorporate in their projects and presentations.
In 2010-11, WATCH will be expanding to a second venue, Watsonville High School.
The project raised environmental conservation knowledge and awareness in the community, and it showed what high school students can achieve when given the chance.
"The community is seeing that high school kids can have a positive impact on the environment and that they really do care," said Bell.