Island Explorers Dive Into Marine Sciences

Thanks to a Neighborhood Outreach Grant, students at the Foshay Learning Center are teaming up with the USC Sea Grant program. Together, they explore the world beneath the waves.
by Carol Tucker
Kelp, kelp, everywhere. Joanne Olson (left) and Amy Cox (in background), graduate students in science education in the School of Education, assist youngsters at the Foshay Learning Center in building a "kelp forest." The blue sponge paintings represent the ocean, while twisted pieces of green paper taped to green yarn appear as floating kelp. The ocean scene provides the perfect environment for a reading corner that contains books and materials about marine science, oceans and creatures of the sea.

Photo by Irene Fertik
In the corner of an otherwise typical classroom at Foshay Learning Center, children are diving into marine science books in a "kelp forest."

Paper dolphins, whales, sharks, fish, sea horses and other sea animals hang from the ceiling. Sponge paintings of blue ocean line the walls. Strands of "kelp" - twisted pieces of green paper taped to green yarn - enclose this special reading corner, which is brimming with books about oceans and sea animals.

Learning about a favorite marine animal and making a three-dimensional model of it was the first assignment for about 70 fourth- and fifth-graders who are embarking on a year-long marine science education program called Island Explorers.

"We started with what they might already know - most kids know about whales and dolphins - and now we'll get into the physical aspects of the ocean between here and Catalina," said Joanne Olson, who team-teaches the class with Amy Cox, both USC graduate students in science education.

The pilot program, a collaboration of USC Sea Grant and Foshay Learning Center, is being funded largely through a $28,000 USC Neighborhood Outreach Grant. Island Explorers was one of 12 USC-community partnership programs made possible through faculty and staff donations to the 1995 USC Good Neighbors Campaign. This year's campaign continues through Friday, Nov. 8.

Through Island Explorers, about 70 children will be introduced to the fundamentals of marine science through hands-on activities, experiments and research targeted at the ecosystems of the San Pedro Channel and Catalina Island. The new curriculum, being developed by Sea Grant and a team of USC graduate students and Foshay teachers, gives the children the science required for their grade level, but with emphasis on marine science and the ocean environment.

"It's a hands-on marine science curriculum that is going to give students the opportunity to participate in authentic science research activities," said Susan Lafferty, program coordinator and a research assistant at USC Sea Grant. "They will also meet real scientists, learn about the different marine science careers and learn about all aspects of marine science, from geology to chemistry to marine biology."

The program will include field trips to places such as the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro and culminate with a weekend trip to Catalina to do research and marine exploration. The students will be assigned research projects to pursue on Catalina at the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, where they will also stay, explained Cox.

"They will do experiments such as studying the seawater, and hopefully find answers to their research questions," Cox said. Afterward, the students will present their research in a student science seminar at USC, to which their families will be invited.

The program will also introduce students to the basic concepts of marine pollution and recycling. The class will participate in an "Adopt-A-Beach" assembly and beach cleanup with the Malibu Foundation for Environmental Education.

Phyllis Grifman, Sea Grant's assistant director for outreach, said the Island Explorers program was a perfect way for USC Sea Grant to reach out to the community. Sea Grant has been developing marine education curriculum since the early 1980s, but Island Explorers will provide a more focused curriculum for urban children in Southern California.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funds 29 Sea Grant programs nationwide. At USC, Sea Grant serves the Southern California coastal region through research for government agencies and other entities, as well as providing information about marine resources, recreation and education to the public. At USC, Sea Grant's research and outreach projects emphasize topics related to the urban ocean.

"Our program and motto is the urban ocean," Grifman said. "When you look at our mission, our location at USC and teaching science education, we're really geared to develop science education for urban kids. The focus is on Southern California and ethnic minorities. That's why the Neighborhood Outreach program was such a natural fit for us."

The Neighborhood Outreach grant is supporting salaries of USC graduate students who are developing the curriculum. Lafferty, Lynn Whitley, and Judy Doino have the marine science expertise, while Cox and Olson are specialists in science education.

"It's been a good group," said Olson. "We've been very productive and capitalized on each other's strengths."

The grant also helps pay for materials and supplies, including the marine science books, microscopes and other research tools, and a 45-gallon aquarium for the classroom.

As the year progresses, other USC graduate students will be involved in the program as "e-mail experts." These students will serve as mentors, speaking to the class about various topics and being available through e-mail.

According to Grifman, one of the goals is ultimately to extend the curriculum to other classes at Foshay as well other schools. Sea Grant is working with the Los Angeles Unified School District's public broadcasting station and the UC Berkeley School of Education to produce a computer- and video-based curriculum using the content from the Island Explorers program.

"By using computers and video, we are getting into a more interactive mode than text books," Grifman said. "We're really leveraging the grant money to get the program into a wider distribution. Hopefully, we'll be able to run Island Explorers in a number of schools."

Cox said the young students seem to like studying one broad field - marine science and ecosystems - over the entire year instead of changing subjects every couple of weeks. Moreover, they will not be just reading about a topic in a textbook, but actually doing the science.

"This is going to allow experience after experience to really give them some in-depth science background," Cox said, "so they might not be so intimidated about science when they grow up."