- Who We Are
- What We Do
- Who We Work With
- Our Stories
- Training and Consulting
- News and Events
- Activities, Toolkits and Reports
- Online Communities
- Current Initiatives
- Contact Us
More than Just a Fieldtrip: Monterey Bay Aquarium's WATCH Program
Submitted by Wendy Wheeler on Thu, 10/29/2009 - 09:28.
Since its opening in 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, located on the Monterey Bay in Monterey, California, has been a favorite fieldtrip for San Francisco Bay Area school children of all ages. Every year, over 80,000 students traipse the Aquarium’s watery halls, teacher and parent chaperones in tow. For a day, they have the opportunity to interact with the plants, animals, and ecosystems introduced in their science class textbooks. Through the Aquarium’s exhibits – underwater forests of California Giant Kelp, sea otters, touch-pools with tidal marine life, jellyfish, even the occasional Great White Shark – students are, if only for the day, inspired by the science in their everyday lives and local California community. But what if the Aquarium were more than just a field trip? What if it could share the inspiration that comes from hands-on learning to empower an entire community to environmental conservation? A simple idea, but a big one no doubt – for in this simple idea were the roots of one of the Aquarium’s most successful initiatives to date: Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats, better known as WATCH.
“We were rethinking the Aquarium’s education programs,” Rita Bell, the Aquarium’s education program manager, explained when detailing the history and philosophy behind WATCH. “We liked the model of offering direct experiences for kids, parents, teachers, and the community as a whole, but with WATCH we decided to focus our efforts on a single geographic area. One of the many goals was to make a long-term commitment to a community and create an environmental ethic. And then we discovered Watsonville.”
Just 35 minutes north of Monterey, the city of Watsonville is a dynamic part of the greater Monterey Bay community. The area’s many farms attract large numbers of migrant workers, and the city’s population is decidedly diverse – according to 2000 Census data, no single group of people constitutes an ethnic majority. So when Ms. Bell says that the Monterey Bay Aquarium “discovered” Watsonville it was less the city itself that needed discovering and more so the city’s latest addition to their public school system: Pajaro Valley High School. The school, located in a designated wetlands area on the Central Coast, aims, through its explicit focus and academic emphasis on the environmental sciences, to provide students opportunities to become “stewards of the environment.” A match made in environmental heaven.
So in 2006, Pajaro Valley High School and the Monterey Bay Aquarium officially joined forces in the WATCH program. Every year, up to 30 students attend WATCH’s three-week summer institute and enroll in a project-based environmental science class during the academic year. During the summer the students learn key scientific skills – observation, exploration, data collection, communication – and apply them as they explore and work to restore the Pajaro River Watershed. During the school year the students transform their summer experiences into community leadership. With the support of Aquarium staff and high school faculty, students identify an environmental issue that’s of personal interest and design and implement a project to address it. In the past, projects have focused on everything from red-legged frogs to marine debris.
WATCH has been phenomenally successful – so much so that the program is growing. Another local high school wants to be involved. More teachers at Pajaro Valley High school have joined the WATCH team. And perhaps the largest programmatic victory of all, the local school district has integrated the WATCH program into the normal school day schedule. Yet all of this programmatic growth cannot fully tell of WATCH’s ability to motivate and inspire students to their full potential and truly impact their lives. “I’ve had many students tell me how their projects – the rigor and the building of self-confidence that is inevitable in the process – have inspired them to take on opportunities they would not have otherwise,” said Ms. Bell. “One student in particular, she left home for a summer to attend a science program in southern California; now she’s applying to be part of a student-led research team – in Antarctica.”
The individual success stories are countless; but across the board “kids are interested in continuing their relationship with the Aquarium,” Ms. Bell says. And so WATCH is growing yet again, this time with the help of the Innovation Center and Learn & Serve America. As part of the Collective Leadership Works initiative, WATCH is incorporating service-learning and collective leadership into their already-successful model to expand the impact students can make. “I’m excited to continue our connection with the kids,” Ms. Bell said. “I’m excited that these kids and this program can have an impact on a broader community – a community outside of schools and families.”
To extend the impact, WATCH is expanding both the length and scope of its programming. A second year of programming, complemented by a WATCH economic class, will tackle issues of environmental conservation at the policy level. “Right now, the kids are doing things directly within their sphere of influence, like authoring a brochure on environmental debris,” Kim Swan, who manages the Aquarium’s teen programs, explains. “But with this economic component, they’ll be looking at things that drive change within community. The question for them is ‘How can the change I make become systemic?’ It’ll be very hands on!”
The infusion of the new service-learning component is further encouragement and cause for excitement about the program’s future successes. “We’ve just seen it [service-learning] work,” Ms. Bell said. “We’ve seen that when kids take on projects they’re passionate about, they can move mountains. They can convince a lot of people to change behaviors.”
And with enough people changing enough behaviors, the result is a vastly different community. With WATCH, the Aquarium is sustaining interest in conservationism well past the reach of a day-long fieldtrip; with WATCH, a culture of conservation becomes a community’s way of life.