“You can't get your boots full of salt water in the classroom,” said Ventura Vega, Pajaro Valley High School junior who, along with fellow students Anthony Barrios and Anyssa Luna, went to Washington, DC in February for the Youth Summit on Oceans and Climate.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium began funding Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats, also known as WATCH, at in 2006.
One of only 20 delegations from the coastal U. S., the four WATCH members study the effects of acidification on the planet's oceans by assessing crab behavior.
During the trip, Vega, Luna and Barrios presented a video the group designed and produced at the Smithsonian National Museum.
Junior Anyssa Luna created a series of sketches showing an otter looking for—and failing to find—a dinner of crabs. The video segues into a montage of photos, drawings and graphs on the effects of pollution on waterways and the oceans. The music score provides urgency to the visuals of dire consequences from industrial and vehicle carbon dioxide emissions. It ends with “mi casa es su casa,” but in this case, Earth owns the house and human beings are the guests.
“We had to create the project ourselves,” said Vega. “We had to make sure we had all the materials, make lists and we did the video on our own."
The research netted real results.
"We reported behavioral changes when crabs were put in 6.5 pH water and 8.9 pH water,” Vega said.
That self-directed learning is valuable for students preparing for an ever-changing work environment, according to the facutly adviser.
“This is a unique opportunity for students to create their own learning. It is completely refreshing and empowering to work with the professionals at Monterey Bay Aquarium,” WATCH adviser Dave Benham said.
Benham, a history and government teacher, admitted he learned science from the teens as their faculty mentor.
“It's important for people to know that WATCH is run by students,” Barrios, a junior, said. “Besides actual field work we had deadlines that the aquarium gave us the first week It's hard when people assume adults and teachers are doing the work.”
Of her studies Luna said, “Instead of having the information handed to you, you have to to beyond your boundaries and do research so you can understand the subject matter better. We worked hands-on with MBA's Research Institute at Elkhorn Slough. It was so great.”
Senior Margarita Solano was not able to attend the summit, but enjoyed being a part of the team.
“I am so happy and grateful to be with the others, finding a way to help protect what's around us. I never expected to study crabs or learn about pH levels," said Solano, who aspires to be a nurse or doctor specializing in health care for low-income families.
Monterey Bay Aquarium expanded WATCH to last year, supplying staff to teach ocean literacy through actual field work.
"Beyond ocean literacy, the goal is to help students make the connection of the health and importance of their local watershed and its connection to the ocean," said Kim Swan, Teen Programs Manager with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Benham hastened to credit a fellow teacher for starting a program resulting in PVHS students presenting at a prestigious conference in the nation's capitol.
“The WATCH project began when Gary Martindale forged a connection with Monterey Bay Aquarium. He has co-taught the WATCH class since 2006 and is a tireless advocate for student contact with nature, especially the five sloughs surrounding Watsonville, the wetlands and ocean," Benham said.
The program's structure—both the assignment goals and the professionals they work with—creates high expectations for students.
Benham said, “This is real research. Students can't fake their way through. Martindale is a true scientist and makes sure their work is not shoddy. The students get to work with some world-renowned mentors. At the D.C. summit, they met Congressman Sam Farr and shook hands with Jean-Michel Cousteau.”
The Student Proclamation issued at the end of the Summit is a skillful, impassioned document: “We, this delegation of young adults, are here from all over coastal North America to entreat Congress to hear our voices of concern for the deadly route our planet is taking.” It concluded, “We believe that it’s time that U.S. citizens learn what Native Americans have always known; in order to show respect for the seven generations before and the seven generations to follow, we must protect our Earth and its resources.”