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Passing Earth Science to the Next Generation

Exploring California Biodiversity is a program through which UC Berkeley graduate students teach science classes in Bay Area high schools. Students take field trips and visit Cal's many museums, opening their eyes to their environment and their minds to a college education.

When Jessie Alberto was in elementary school, he used to catch insects and inspect them during class, until a teacher would catch him and he'd let them jump, crawl, or fly away.

"I'd get grasshoppers and put them on my desk," he recalls with a mischievous smile. "When the teachers saw them, I would pretend they weren't mine."

Now a sophomore at Richmond High School, a tough campus where police officers are always present, Jessie catches and observes grasshoppers and other critters as part of his favorite course. "It's the only class I've ever heard of where you deal with live animals," he says. He grins and shows off a jar in which a checkered alligator lizard floats upside-down. "Dead ones too."

Jessie declares that the lizard is a reptile. "Usually reptiles have rougher surfaces and amphibians have smoother, moisturized surfaces because they absorb water," he explains. He points to a giant salamander with glossy brown skin, an amphibian, in another jar. "See, it's slimy."

He moves on to collections of rodent, snake, and bird specimens, recording his observations about the animals and answering questions on his worksheet about why they might have developed these characteristics. He looks intrigued as he turns over woodpecker specimens. Noting the different colors, he writes that males and females might look different so they can attract one another, like humans.

"These are things they never would have seen, never knew existed. We are basically opening their eyes to what is out there."

Jessie says he learns more from this class than any other science class because he gets to examine things firsthand. "I'd rather see it than look at the details of the animals in a book," he says.

He has that opportunity thanks to an innovative program called Exploring California Biodiversity, which sends Berkeley graduate students to teach in four Bay Area schools: Richmond High and Adams Middle School in Richmond, Berkeley High School, and Pittsburgh High School. Graduate students become mentors to teens from widely diverse backgrounds, and do their best to impart their passion for research and ignite the students' natural curiosity.

The grad students, supported by program coordinator Betsy Mitchell, draw upon UC Berkeley's museums, specimen collections, and field stations to take science off of the page and out of the classroom. By providing specimens, taking students on overnight camping trips, and introducing them to the species that live in their own schoolyards, the grad students hope to spark the kids' curiosity about the diversity of life. The activities they create-such as using a dichotomous key to identify algae, drawing and describing leaves to learn about scientific observation, and graphing elephant seal population data to interpret what happens when humans interfere in nature-teach students about variation, adaptation, and evolution.

The program was conceived and is led by Rosemary Gillespie, professor of Insect Biology and director of Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology. She works closely with Judy Scotchmoor at the UC Museum of Paleontology and other professors from Berkeley’s Natural History Museums and Field Stations. These scientists believe that it is imperative to mentor students and open their eyes to the excitement of science—something Gillespie says is missing in too many schools. Last fall, her dedication to this and similar causes was recognized in Washington, D.C., when she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

"Kids in this program get to pick up animals and actually look at them, pick up snakes they've never seen before, even trap small mammals," she says. "These are things they never would have seen, never knew existed. We are basically opening their eyes as to what is out there."

The opportunity these educators provide would be rare at any high school. But it is even more unusual in Richmond, a city with California's highest homicide rate and notorious problems with gang violence, where just 24 percent of adults have college degrees and few high school students go on to college. In the Richmond High classroom where Jessie's science class meets, a giant periodic table shares wall space with a sign imploring students to stay away from violence. "Nothing's more valuable than human life," it says.

In this environment, it is particularly challenging to engage students in science. "For the most part, they're very unaware of the world outside the city," says Richmond High School science teacher Rebecca Robinson. "Unlike many kids from middle-class communities, they haven't had outdoor experiences."

The learning curve is steep for some students who take the Exploring California Biodiversity courses. On their first trip to a Northern California forest, for example, some Richmond High School students asked teachers if they would come across any tigers. By mid-semester, however, those same students were identifying indigenous species.

Robinson co-teaches her class each week with two graduate students, Raphael Mazor, a student in environmental science, policy, and management, and Ryan Hill, an integrative biology student. They create hands-on lesson plans that teach the high schoolers four general concepts: the nature and process of science, species identification, making collections, and ecology and evolution. They use natural history collections borrowed from university museums and they travel to museums, parks, and forests. They assign activities such as collecting and pinning insects, counting and identifying species in the schoolyard, or cataloging trees.

This spring, for instance, the group spent two nights at one of the College's field stations, where they caught lizards with tiny nooses, trapped small mammals, and pressed plants. These activities taught them to pay close attention to details, identify different species, make collections, and, most of all, appreciate the biodiversity in nature and get excited about the scientific process.

Fall, 2005: Rebecca Robinson's environmental science class is touring several of UC Berkeley's six natural history museums, and the students, amazingly, are paying rapt attention. Jessie, wearing an oversized shirt and a gold chain, stands shyly near the back of the group and scribbles down notes. Rocio Camarena, another student, is at the front, volunteering answers first.

"It's a lot of fun," she says, as they pass a giant sperm whale skull. "You don't just learn about the environment, you learn about what happens in it-that what people do not only affects us, but the little critters too."

Grad student Ryan Hill opens a drawer in the vertebrate museum and pulls out a bird with long plumes of bright yellow and orange. The students respond with a chorus of wows.

"What strikes you about these?" Hill asks.

"The feathers!" Rocio shouts.

"Yes! The idea here is that the males have evolved to have elaborate feathers to show they'd be a good mate," Hill says.

"It works wonders to take a graduate students who is really excited about his or her own work, and unleash that enthusiasm into the public schools."

Next he reaches for a bird with a large white beak, an ivory-billed woodpecker specimen from the early 1900s, and tells the students that scientists thought it was extinct until recently. A few take out their cell phones to snap pictures and pass them to the students in the back.

"Well, that's not what we're here in the museum for," Hill says, and invites the students to the front so they can see the bird firsthand.

Next he pulls out a small bird with a long beak-a rufous tailed jacamar-and tells the students it eats some of the same butterflies they saw at another museum earlier in the day. He asks why the bird's beak might be so long.

One girl raises her hand. "To catch the butterflies?" she asks.

"Yes!" says Hill, who has talked with the kids about his own research on butterfly populations. "And in some of my butterflies, I see beak marks on the wings."

Robinson is thrilled to see so many of her students excited about learning science. And yet she still feels as if she must constantly battle with school administrators just to be able to offer the class. That's because under the No Child Left Behind Act, the school must continue to improve its students' academic performance index, which is based on standardized tests that focus primarily on reading and math. The short sections that test science assess students' grasp of facts and figures, not the field-based science of Exploring California Biodiversity.

Robinson is worried that if students aren't exposed to this kind of material, high schools will continue to graduate students without any interest in scientific research--and who don't understand the importance of biodiversity.

These concerns echo the same issues that motivate Rosemary Gillespie to continue the program and expand its reach. "One thing that tends to get lost all the way from grade school through high school is what science actually is," she says. "Where the excitement of research is happening, where people get really engaged and really understand--that's largely limited to universities," she says. "K-12 systems just don't have access to that kind of opportunity, so kids don't see the excitement or feel what's going on. But it works wonders to take a graduate student who is really excited about his or her own work, and unleash that enthusiasm into the public schools."

Just get Raphael Mazor started talking about the health of aquatic systems and how habitat loss has endangered a certain fairy shrimp, or listen to Ryan Hill discuss the morphology of mimetic butterflies, and the grad students' passion for science is undeniable. But they're the first to admit that it can be difficult to translate this enthusiasm into concepts understandable to people outside the ivory tower.

Their passion, however, is obviously not lost in translation. Based on the young students' reactions, the program is succeeding. Jessie Alberto, for example, explains why he likes his hands-on science class so much. "I can see how to examine things, observe, take notes, and experiment," he says.

To a UC Berkeley alumnus, that may sound like an obvious description of any science class. But according to his teacher, Jessie's words are rare and heartwarming because they show that he understands science as a process of observation and experimentation.

For Jessie and the other students in Richmond, the benefits go beyond science. The graduate students become role models-sometimes the only college-educated young people the students know.

"For our kids, it turns university people into real people and not some foreign thing they could never envision for themselves," says Peg Dabel, who teaches at Adams Middle School in Richmond. "That's maybe equally important . a give-and-take with young professional adults who are funny and human and really like what they're doing."

For Brian Kraatz, a grad student who has taught both at Berkeley High and Adams Middle School, mentoring students about college is especially fulfilling because he was the first person in his own family to attend college. "Many students we work with don't view secondary education as a viable option," he says. To change this, he brings his students to the Cal campus to expose them to the university setting, spends a day answering their questions about working in science, and talks with each student about his or her family background and educational goals.

Now, thanks to the program, Jessie Alberto is on the road to becoming yet another first-in-the-family to attend college. As the only sophomore in the course, he's already proving he has the academic skills, and he is enthusiastic about applying when the time comes. His parents, a construction worker and a janitor from Mexico, "think it's great, it's cool," he says.

For now, he's content inspecting the California newts the graduate students have brought to class. "Do they usually live near lakes?" Jessie asks Mazor.

"Yeah-and on field trips we see big clusters fighting over the females," Mazor says.

Jessie ponders this idea with the same intrigued grin that he'd flashed while examining the lizards and woodpeckers. "Cool," he says.

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Claire Cain Miller is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley.


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