July 13, 2001

Sweetwater District Students Dig Into Marine Science

By Yvette tenBerge

Most beach goers cannot tell you what a bulla gouldiana or a cerithidea californica is, but seven days into a six and a half week summer school science course, Sweetwater Union High School District students can not only tell you that these two things are shells, but they can also identify them by color, shape and size.

Castle Park High's Denise Gonzalez talks with instructor Darrell Jet.

It is a lazy Friday morning at the Chula Vista Nature Center, and Darrell Jet's hands-on marine science classroom is abuzz with activity. Cups of dark mud, piles of slimy seaweed and rows of multi-colored shells cover each desk. Although there is not a textbook in sight, the students peer through microscopes and flip through Xeroxed handouts to identify the items that they had dug up from the marsh earlier that morning.

"This course is unique in that it is taught off campus, and at a nature center. We can go out into the mud, dig up these shells, and identify them. It is a step towards maturity, because it is set up much like a college course," says Mr. Jet, who has offered this class for the past 10 years. "There is a lot more responsibility that goes along with being in a class like this."

To earn one year's worth of science or elective credits, these 10th,11th and 12th graders board a bus at Chula Vista High each morning that deposits them at the Nature Center by 8:00 a.m. For the next four hours, they participate in activities that educate them about the marsh's ecological system, about the impact of humans on the global ocean and about the organisms living in the near-shore environment.

(left to right) Castle Park High's Reuben Calleros and Hilltop High's Juan Arellano identify their findings.

Although the class dwindled from 25 students to 10 in just one week's time, the students who are still enrolled are quick to admit that the dropout rate has everything to do with the early hour in which they are forced to catch the bus, and nothing to do with the course or its instructor.

Rachel Thompson, a very vocal 16 year-old junior at Bonita Vista High, admits that she has learned more from this course in one week than she learned in a whole semester of the classroom-based science class that she took last year.

"When you have such a good teacher, it makes what you are learning fun. Who else would think of activities that have you digging through the mud," says Ms. Thompson, as she walks to the area from which the class extracted their samples earlier that morning. The environmentally conscious student then motions to the litter that lines the mouth of the marsh before heading back to the science lab. "We take trash back with us each time we come out here. Fish can't take trash to the trashcan."

Denise Gonzalez, a 16 year-old 11th grader at Castle Park High, is engrossed in the job at hand and keeps her eyes glued to her microscope. She admits that she also prefers learning science in this format. "I like science, and I really like biology. I think you learn more when a course is hands-on. Learning seems easier this way than it does when you learn everything from a book," says Ms. Gonzalez, who eagerly shares her plans for the evening. "I just learned that Grunion usually come out during a full moon, at the highest tides, so I will be at Coronado beach tonight between 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m."

Perhaps the most impressive and challenging portion of the course will come further into the session, when the school district will pay these high school students to teach science lessons to middle-school students. For two days, these high schoolers will be responsible for developing curriculum that meets California State Standards in science.

Mr. Jet's eyes light up at the prospect of handing the reins over to his students. "I have to say that I love teaching this course. It is unreal. I came down here with these motivated, high-activity kids who care about the environment. It is very rewarding," says Mr. Jet, before letting his students out for a short break. "I look forward to teaching my summer school classes every single year."

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