Developing CUSD program aims to prepare students through lessons on gray whales and their ecosystem
By Brian Park
In the waters just outside of Dana Point Harbor, aboard the OCean Adventures catamaran, fourth- and fifth-grade students from a combination class at Wood Canyon Elementary School in Aliso Viejo were on the lookout for gray whales.
“Thar she blows!” one girl yelled.
“No, that’s nothing,” her observant classmate replied.
For months, the students had been preparing for their ocean excursion, a capstone reward and an opportunity to apply what they had learned about gray whales and their ecosystem in a fun ocean expedition.
But on this day, there were no gray whales sighted. Capt. Todd Mansur, lead naturalist for Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, suspects they may have been avoiding boats or a few might have slipped past them into shallower waters.
“This isn’t SeaWorld,” Mansur said. “Nothing is penned in. We’re sponsored by Earth.”
The kids, though, were not taken back ashore without a show. They were told to remain quiet so as to not scare away sea lions basking on a buoy. Later, they screamed to their hearts’ content as a pod of dolphins swam beside their boat.
“The cuteness is killing me!” said the girl, who had earlier envisioned a whale.
Had they spotted a gray whale, the students would have been prepared. With binoculars, stopwatches to time breathing patterns and clipboards to mark down their observations, they were ready to contribute their part to an ongoing study of the whales’ annual migration, from cold Alaskan waters, past the California coastline and to warmer bays and lagoons off the Mexican coast.
The group was the last of 23 trips taken this migratory season by 52 participating classes from several schools in the Capistrano Unified School District. All of them took part in a program, launched last spring, that aims to apply new Common Core standards and STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in classrooms.
By going deeper into subject matter—in this case, gray whales and their ecosystem—and drawing from those four disciplines, school officials hope to mold students into more creative problem solvers and prepare them for futures that will be more dependent on technology.
“Every learner remembers something more if they’ve actually done it, whether you’re fixing a tire or wiring a circuit,” said Elisa Slee, a teacher on special assignment, or TOSA, tasked to find new ways to implement STEM curriculum into CUSD classrooms. “There are many opportunities in STEM careers, and the way I see it, everyone should be well versed in STEM. It’s the vehicle for learning everything better because children are naturally curious.”
CUSD’s gray whale unit is not the only STEM-focused program that teachers have adopted.
As part of a program Slee helped organize, Advanced Placement environmental science students from Dana Hills High School take what they have learned during the school year, organize the material into lesson plans and present them to fourth-graders from Kinoshita Elementary School during a field trip at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. The older students, in teaching others, become expert in local environmental issues while the younger scholars learn practical, science-based lessons and solutions about their surrounding environment.
Many of the programs rely on support from local businesses and community organizations, like The Ecology Center. The gray whale unit would not be if it were not for The Gulf of Catalina Gray Whale Preservation and Education Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Dana Wharf co-owner Michael Hansen, Mansur and their staff.
Since the early ‘90s, Dana Wharf has welcomed CUSD students on field trips, but Hansen, Mansur and company recognized that students did not have the foundational knowledge to understand why they were looking for whales.
“Any time you can study an animal that’s coastal, that swims near your shoreline, you’re going to know how well you’re treating the local ecosystem,” Mansur said. “These animals are going to have the biggest impact from anything we do here because of our proximity.”
Mansur and the Gray Whale Foundation began going to classrooms, in CUSD and all over Southern California, to give presentations on why the students would be visiting Dana Point Harbor and what they should expect from their trip. In 2007, the foundation began developing a more formal curriculum, which would later spawn the district’s gray whale unit.
“(The trip) had to be an award. It had to be earned, first and foremost, by the teachers,” Mansur said. “If the teachers weren’t willing to teach the curriculum, it wasn’t going to work.”
The foundation reached out to CUSD, and district officials connected them with Slee, along with Nona Reimer and Paola Paz Soldan, teachers at Malcolm and Las Palmas elementary schools, respectively.
“One of the ways we can make a difference is to create partnerships, so there’s a synergy instead of competition,” Slee said.
The trio, working with the foundation, created a curriculum, complete with lesson plans and activities, for other willing teachers to adopt.
“If the teachers were doing the unit and were willing to attend the training, they could ask to have a free or subsidized field trip, funded by the Gray Whale Foundation,” Slee said. The entire unit, including the trip, costs about $60 per student, according to Mansur.
Using gray whales as the “flagship species,” the unit was designed to satisfy the goals of Common Core, known as the “4 C’s:” collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity. Activities also hit on the four elements of STEM and incorporate them across different subject matter. One lesson on feeding adaptions uses all four STEM elements by teaching students about baleen, the hair-like bristle gray whales and other toothless whales use to filter food from ocean water. Students designed and engineered their own baleen from materials, such as metal wands banded by rubber bands, to filter rice out of water. After testing their creations, students noted the results and improved on their designs.
“It’s a different way to integrate engineering, technology, science and mathematics,” Paz Soldan said. “The moment they get their hands on it, the depth of their understanding is much greater.”
The goal of STEM education, and Common Core, is to prepare students for higher education opportunities and a future workforce with ever-changing demands.
“Ten years ago, the technology we have today we never would have imagined. What’s down the line we don’t even know yet,” Paz Soldan said. “But if we get these kids interested today, to have a strong base, they’ll have a better concept … Just the fact that they’re exposed to new ways of thinking allows them to solve problems in new ways. They’re going to have to solve the problems we’re leaving them.”
For the foundation, the unit helps to meet their goal to foster “ocean-minded” citizens. Mansur said, eventually, he would like to see it fully adopted across CUSD and to other districts as well.
“I am positive as they see the success rate of this and the happiness of students, it’ll continue to grow,” Mansur said. “Passion is contagious. When you speak the word of ocean awareness, you have to remember the vast ocean. These kids are the stewards of our future.”