It looked like an ordinary beach day on Catalina Island.
Teenagers, 27 of them, were happily snorkeling, kayaking, diving,
swimming and frolicking near the dock of Big Fisherman’s Cove, a small,
crescent-shaped stretch of coastline close to the isthmus.
But none of it was ordinary for this group of middle and high
school students from educationally underserved communities in Los
Angeles, Hawthorne, and South Gate. They’d never been to the ocean.
Carmen Flores, a freshman at Hawthorne Math and Science Academy, wasn't wild about the snorkeling.
“Eewwwww,” a girl in a snorkeling mask screeched, torpedoing up
from the water and running for shore as fast as she could. “I see
“This water is cold,” a boy, clad in a wet suit, exclaimed. “I can’t touch the bottom.”
“Was that a sea lion?” another boy asked a pair of kayakers paddling
by. The kayakers looked over excitedly and capsized, plunging sideways
into 55-degree F water, laughing as they bobbed in the water near their
“These are city kids,” said Robin Jones, a science teacher at South
Gate Middle School. “Most of them have never been to the beach,
so this is an awesome experience for them. The facilities are
beautiful, the food is great, I’m seeing a tremendous amount of
first-time experiences among the kids. It’s a world they didn’t even
Jones and her students were part of a three-day Viterbi School/MESA
field trip to USC’s Wrigley Marine Science Center, snuggled in a small
cove just south of Two Harbors. MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science
Achievement) is a national program that works with thousands of
educationally disadvantaged students statewide to improve math and
The program is administered by the University of California and
partners with other UC campuses, the California State University,
California Community Colleges, independent colleges and universities,
the California Department of Education, community-based education
centers, school districts and individual schools. MESA’s largest
Southern California progam is located at the USC Viterbi School of
Each summer, Viterbi School staff led by Larry Lim, director of
Pre-College Programs in Viterbi’s Center for Engineering Diversity,
host a three-day field trip at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center,
located on a 14-acre parcel of land owned by the university. The
cove is home to a marine science lab, field offices, a hyperbaric
chamber, and dormitories used primarily by USC marine biology graduate
students, USC Wrigley Marine Science Center staff, and K-12 schools
from the Los Angeles and Long Beach unified school districts. The
curriculum, activities and educational focus were developed by USC’s
Sea Grant program. USC Sea Grant’s Lynn Whitley has been the lead
instructor and coordinator of the program from its beginning.
The Wrigley/USC Legacy
A science experiment.
The Wrigley institute was opened in 1997 on land that had been donated
to USC in 1965 by the Wrigley family, whose stewardship of Catalina’s
rich natural habitat goes all the way back to 1919. William Wrigley was
a USC trustee, president and chief executive officer of the William
Wrigley Jr. Co., and director and chairman of the board of the Santa
Catalina Island Conservancy. Two years before his death in 1999, he and
his wife, Julie, presided over the champagne christening of the new
center, which today is programmatically affiliated with USC College.
Catalina Island is a unique environment and a perfect laboratory for
teachers who want to give their students hands-on training in science
and environmental preservation. For instance, it is the only California
Channel Island that supports a shallow mud habitat.
Snorkelers, led by a Wrigley Center diver, get instructions before jumping into an underwater world they had never seen.
Here, marine biologists have studied mud flat invertebrates such as fiddler crabs (Ura crenulata
), mud shrimp (Upogebia pugettensis
) and ghost shrimp (Callianassa
Two species of salamanders and three species of frogs have also been
collected on the island, as well as five species of bats.
“It’s an ideal place for studying marine biology,” said Lorraine
Sadler, a USC Wrigley Center marine science instructor and hyberbaric
chamber technician, who lives on the island. “When I first came to the
island (to live), I couldn’t believe that there weren’t any marine
biology courses being taught at any of the local schools here. I
spent years slowly introducing them.”
In addition to its rich marine life, Catalina supports some unusual
mammals, including its world famous herd of buffalo. Fourteen of the
animals were brought over in 1924 by a film company to make The Vanishing American
Hollywood’s version of Zane Grey’s classic novel, then left behind.
(Grey himself was a resident of the island.) Today the herd is
maintained at between 400 and 500 by the Santa Catalina Island
Conservancy. Also found on the island are feral goats, pigs, fox and a
rare species of shrew.
For six years, USC’s MESA program has hosted a summer outing to the
island. This summer’s group included students from five junior
and senior high schools: Alhambra High School, Hawthorne Math and
Science Academy, South Gate Middle School, 32nd Street School, and the
USC MaST (Math, Science and Technology) magnet school.
Early Morning Plankton Tow
The trip began with an early morning plankton tow on the 22-mile ride
to Two Harbors from San Pedro Harbor. When the students arrived,
they were greeted by Wrigley Marine Science Center staff, who showed
them around the facility and grounds.
“This is fantastic, really awesome,” said Edder Rodriguez, an eighth
grader from South Gate Middle School, who had never been to the island.
“I know this will be an invaluable experience for them,” added
JoyceAnne MacKenzie, a mathematics teacher from Hawthorne Math and
Science Academy. “They’re so excited to be here.”
Adithi Ravishankar, left, a 10th grader from the 32nd Street USC
MaST magnet school, waves as she and partner Jackie Tran of Alhambra
High sail by.
The children devoted their first day of lessons to marine ecology.
Research activities were held at the waterfront, where their USC boat
had docked. The kids conducted water sample experiments, dangling nets
off the side of the dock and pulling them through the water to collect
plankton and other microscopic sea life.
Others measured the clarity of the water with a long rope tied to a
disk and marked every 10 feet like a measuring tape. They dropped the
rope over the side and determined the point where they could no longer
see the disk. Each experiment was repeated two or three times and
carefully monitored by Viterbi School staff Ben Louie, MESA associate
director, and Darin Gray, science coordinator.
“Repeatability is very important in science experiments, and I’m sure
it’s important in math as well,” Sadler told the students. “There’s a
lot of math in science and a lot of art in science, we just don’t seem
to realize it. One of my favorite sayings is that everything is
connected. We just haven’t found all of the connections yet. So maybe
some of you will be the ones who come up with those connections.”
In the research lab, the students poured their water samples into petri
dishes and examined them under microscopes. They found diatoms and
dinoflagellates — common types of phytoplankton — which multiply to
form coastal blooms, creating red or brown tides by their sheer numbers.
“They have giant eyeballs,” said Christian Pelaez, an eighth-grader
from South Gate Middle School. “I’ve never been to the ocean, I’m
a city person, but I didn’t know there were so many organisms in the
water. I thought there was only one kind.”
Evening Lab Work
In the evening, the students returned to the dock to collect nighttime
water samples, which they took back to the lab for examination under
the microscope. They drew sketches of each type of organism they
observed, oohing each time some strange microbe crashed or somersaulted
— or lit up — in the petri dish.
Jackie Tran of Alhambra High drags a net through the water to collect plankton for study in the laboratory.
“Some plankton produce visible light, called bioluminescence,”
explained Ivona Cetinic, a USC marine environmental biology Ph.D.
student, who interns at the science center each summer and studies the
initiation of these red tide blooms. “One of the dinoflagellates
responsible for red tides is also luminescent, so when you see the
crashing waves of a red wave, the waves often appear to glow
greenish-blue,” she said.
Cetinic is one of about 80 scholars from USC natural and social science
departments and professional schools conducting ongoing research at the
Wrigley Center. With a newly awarded NASA grant, she has just begun to
study red tides using satellite data, hoping that the new data will
allow her to complete her doctoral degree in 2008.
She was a hit that night. After a 12-hour day, the kids all charged up
again. They couldn’t believe their eyes or conceal their
excitement in the lab.
“Eye-openers are what this program is all about,” said Louie. “These
kids do not have the opportunity to come out to an island like this.
They have no idea what science and technology are all about. And this
is all hands-on learning, which makes it particularly important because
it stimulates their curiosity.”
“We know the curriculum is successful because this is our sixth year on
Catalina and it’s still hard to pick which schools and teachers we’re
going to bring out each summer,” added Lim.
At the touch tanks, Terri Bidle, a Wrigley Center marine educator,
introduced the children to sea cucumbers, anemones, spiny lobster,
mussels, limpets, drift kelp, zebra-striped Goby fish, worms, sea stars
and brittle stars.
“I’m not used to touching the animals,” said Jacqueline Tran, a
sophomore from Alhambra High School. “They were slimy. The
sea cucumber looked pretty horrible and it felt like velvet.”
“Now I’m afraid to go in the water,” giggled Adithi Ravishankar, a 10th
grader from the 32nd Street USC MaST magnet school. “There’s so
many little creepy things in the water, especially when you see them
under the microscope.”
She was kidding, of course. The next day, Ravishankar sailed by
in her white "Cobra Tandem" kayak with the confidence of an instructor,
smiling cheek-to-cheek and waving as she and her boating partner,
Jackie Tran, floated by.
The teachers said they would ask the students to report on their
experiences next semester, and that they would use the field lessons as
a basis for follow-up science and marine biology lessons in the
Alhambra High School math teacher Victoria Wong said her students would
present PowerPoint lectures of their adventures to the MESA Club at
Alhambra High in the fall.
“This is my fourth year as a teacher, but this is really a great
learning experience, both for the kids and for myself,” Wong
said. “I know the kids are learning a lot.”
Sahlit Bahiru, a 10th grader at the 32nd Street USC MaST school, examines phytoplankton under the microscope.
In addition to the Catalina trip, USC’s MESA program also sponsors
math and science competitions, hands-on science days, a robotics
workshop at USC, and a popular industry program in which students in
the Southern California region tour various aerospace and research
institutions. The industry tours have been tremendously
successful, Louie said.
“We take our kids to Raytheon and Boeing, so the engineers can speak to
them and the kids get to see people of their own ethnic or cultural
background,” he said. “That tells them that there are Hispanic or
African American engineers out there.”
At USC’s MESA Awards banquet this year, Louie said that about half of
the 60 MESA graduating seniors present had decided to pursue
engineering degrees at a four-year college or university.
“That’s very fulfilling,” Louie added. “And I know that at least one or
two of our MESA kids will be coming to the USC Viterbi School.”