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Viterbi School MESA Kids Test the Waters at Catalina Island

A group of junior and senior high school students from underserved communities in L.A. get their first chance to explore the ocean

June 17, 2006 —
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 crabs. “    

“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 overturned boat.

“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 know existed.”

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 science skills.

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 Engineering.   

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.
A science experiment.

The Wrigley/USC Legacy
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.

Touch Tanks
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 classroom.
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.
Other MESA Events
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.”
--Diane Ainsworth