What can you find in a one-by-one-foot patch of ground? An entire world of information. Just ask Kim Cornfield’s fourth graders. This tiny “quadrat” marked off with sections of PVC pipe, serves as a microcosm of the local environment throughout the year. It’s a great tool for teaching young people about the land, and can even propel students toward bigger things, like devising a campus cleanup initiative—or pursuing a career in the sciences.
Kim, who’s been teaching at the International School of Monterey for seven years, learned about quadrats at a free, week-long Teacher Professional Development Program offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one in a range of programs the Aquarium created to serve teachers from the Monterey Bay region—and beyond. More than 140 instructors participate each year—almost 2,700 since the program’s inception.
For educators, inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards can be invigorating and inspirational. It’s also a lot of hard work. Many teachers say the Aquarium has helped them re-engage and reconnect with students in ways they hadn’t imagined. They return to their classrooms with a new sense of energy and purpose.
Educator programs serve teachers reaching students from Pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, and incorporate Next Generation Science Standards. Some last a single day, while others are week-long “residential programs” that include free meals, housing and onsite transportation.
Programs fill up quickly. Mary Whaley, the Aquarium’s teacher programs manager, says she hopes to expand the offerings in the future, once the new Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership is completed in 2019.
“With the opening of the Center, we should be able to double the number of teachers we can host,” she says. “We’re also creating new programs to serve teachers at other education levels.”
Here’s how some teachers are finding inspiration.
Using robots to explore Elkhorn Slough
Stan Wyman has been a science teacher at Bolsa Knolls Middle School in Salinas for more than 20 years. Along the way, he accumulated boxes of classroom scientific equipment.
“I had instruments related to electricity, heat and energy,” he says. “I thought, ‘What can I do with all this stuff?’” Then it came to him: Why not get his students to build ocean-going robots, just like scientists nearby at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)?
Well, maybe not exactly like MBARI’s robots. Stan’s robots only range deep enough to document the water quality in the wetlands of Elkhorn Slough, a half-hour from campus. Bolsa Knolls students build about 50 of the foot-long robots each year. The machines extract 200 ml of water and perform six water quality tests, for things like pH, temperature, phosphates and sulfates.
What have the students learned? “On any given day, the Slough is pretty healthy,” says Stan. “A lot of my students are from the local ag community, so that’s nice to know.”
His program is so popular there’s a waiting list to get in. In 2016, Stan received a Leaders in Ocean Conservation and Education award from Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard, for his work inspiring future ocean stewards.
Early on, Stan participated in a week-long Project-Based Science class, and “I learned a lot,” he says. “For the next two years (the Aquarium) supported me. We met every two months, got together with cohorts, and discussed possible grants and funding sources. They’ve continued to make sure I still have access to colleagues at Elkhorn Slough, the Aquarium, and MBARI. And they were really good about following up with training.”
“I don’t think I could have done it without the Aquarium’s guidance, support and encouragement,” he adds. “It’s hard to pull off something like this.”
What’s more, his students have gone on to career success. “A number of my kids have majored in science and are working in their fields,” says Stan.
Science of the schoolyard
Rachel Hitchcock, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade science at Amesti Elementary School in Watsonville, loved immersing herself in nature as part of the Aquarium’s teacher programs. She spent plentiful time tidepooling, and even got to go kayaking.
Along the way, she realized “you don’t have to go to the beach or forest” to learn about nature and conservation.
“I just completed a project with my fourth graders that started with the simple question: ‘How healthy is our schoolyard?’” she says.
“We used iPads to collect data and make meaning of it, using the CleanSwell app,” Rachel says. “The students noticed in some instances there was trash right next to the trash can, or in certain areas there was no trash can. Then they learned to present the data and relate it to an action that should be taken, like adding cans or lids in certain areas.”
Rachel has attended several of the Aquarium’s teacher programs over the years, including two courses in Science and Literacy, and the Coastal Systems Institute. One of the biggest benefits of the professional development workshops, she says, is learning how to better integrate technology with science learning.
“Technology was my weakest point,” she admits. “It moves so fast. But that was a big part of the Institutes—feeling more comfortable with tech.
“My skills have grown tremendously in the last five years that I’ve been working with the Aquarium,” she says. “And it’s increased my students’ interest and motivation in science. Everything I’ve learned from the Aquarium has helped me be a better teacher. It’s the best professional development I’ve had in 17 years, hands down.”
Bringing resources to the underserved
To maintain their credential, public school teachers must take continuing education classes. It’s a task some don’t always view with, ahem, enthusiasm. Francisco Gallardo, an elementary school teacher in Hayward, thinks he’s found the answer: a hands-on experience at the Aquarium.
“This is not like other professional development opportunities where you just sit in a class,” he says. “It’s very hands-on. We’re out there, learning about sea otters, and seeing them in the wild, and going behind the scenes at the Aquarium. You can even get a stipend and housing. I tell everyone: think of it like a vacation that will help you be a much better teacher.”
For five years, Francisco taught in a program serving the largest population of English language learners in his district. He now runs an intervention program for students who need after-school help in language arts and math.
Francisco grew up in Santa Cruz, and visited the Aquarium frequently as a kid. After he started teaching, he completed a Project-Based Science Institute in 2015, and is currently in year two of the program. He’s also participated in our Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit.
One of his students created a project to measure the school’s carbon footprint, performing a trash survey.
“She and her team went through all the trash cans, examining what was in recycling, and what was in the trash that could have been recycled,” Francisco says. “She gave a presentation to the superintendent, and was granted money to purchase re-usable containers.”
”I work in a district that has many low-income, underserved students of color,” he says. “Often these students don’t have access to resources and opportunities, or exposure to technology and environmental education. The Aquarium’s Project-Based Science Institute has helped improve my ability to reach these students and increase the level of discourse in class. Students are learning different subjects, in different ways.”
Using apps to connect students with nature
By her own admission, Kim Cornfield “is not a scientist.” But, thanks to the Aquarium’s Teacher Professional Development Programs, she realized that science knowledge is not a prerequisite for inspiring a love of our oceans and the environment.
“The Aquarium does a great job of just reminding you to take kids outside,” says Kim.
Her students at the International School of Monterey identified one part of the campus to chronicle how it changes over the course of a school year, with the help of data collection and apps like Litterati.
“It was a simple question,” she says. “How does the environment change over time? The kids were invested in their campus, and their research led to an action project to create a cleaner school. They also saw, firsthand, the human impact on the ecosystem in their local environment.
“But the biggest revelation was that they could ‘do’ science,” says Kim. “And science is not perfect—there are a lot of variables, the answer doesn’t come in two hours. It was the real-world experience that supplied the benefits.”
Like many Teacher Program participants, Kim discovered how her students’ inherent love of technology could be “a tool for learning—not just screen time.”
“Every teacher should go through the Aquarium’s programs!” she says.
Reconnecting with the ocean
Educators are essential partners in fulfilling the Aquarium’s conservation, education and science missions.
“One thing we hear over and over from teachers is that they come away re-energized,” says Mary Whaley. “They reconnect with teaching, and feel valued and validated by our programs.”
“They’re also inspired to do more on behalf of conservation in general, and specifically for our ocean. Great teaching is one of the biggest benefits a student can have. We know that if they love a place, they’re more likely to help conserve it later.”
Learn more about our free Teacher Professional Development Programs.
Interested in bringing your class to the Aquarium? More than two million students have visited for free as part of our Field Trip programs. Learn more.
Learn more about the new Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, and what it means for future education opportunities for school groups, teachers and emerging teen leaders.