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Science Track

The Ripple Effect
Teaching creek biology where no creek runs

Lisa Owens-Viani

How does a teacher at an inner-city high school teach students about the natural environment, particularly when pavement, fast-food restaurants, car repair shops, and the blare of boom boxes surround them? And more challenging yet, how does that teacher encourage her students, many of whom speak English as a second language, to pass on what they have learned to others? Back in the fall of 1996, Richmond High School teacher Lana Martarella found herself pondering these issues while trying to implement a curriculum that encourages students to become educators.

“We need teachers in California who look like our students and who understand their backgrounds,” says Martarella. Most of the students who attend Richmond High are Hispanic, Asian American, and African American. As her high school’s Director of Special Programs, Martarella decided to employ the Teacher Cadets curriculum, a program designed by the South Carolina Department of Education to help make teachers out of students.

Unfortunately, she found the curriculum more appropriate “for kids who went to college prep schools,” says Martarella. “It didn’t quite fit who we were teaching.” The 1,600 students who attend Richmond High are primarily from low-income families, some from homes where English isn’t spoken. “Most of these ESL students were very unsure of themselves; they lacked self-confidence,” recalls Martarella. “I wanted to choose a subject in which they could become the experts.”

Martarella had just taken part in a workshop by Richmond’s non-profit Aquatic Outreach Institute on using local creeks to teach biology. Martarella decided that creeks might be a good, hands-on subject her students could master. She also wanted to instill in her students a responsibility toward the natural world—and to remind them that beautiful, natural places are there for them to enjoy, too. “Urban students are deprived of so much in life,” she says. “We can’t fill in all of the blanks, but nature is free, in its wonderful richness. At the same time, I wanted them to learn to value its fragility, that it’s not something guaranteed to always be there.”

Despite being surrounded by several large natural areas, says Martarella, many of her students had never been farther than a few blocks from their own homes, or realized that places like Tilden or Wildcat Canyon regional parks were open for them to visit. “That meant they took no ownership or pride in natural areas,” she says. “They looked at urban creeks as a place to go smoke and hang out, to cut school.”

Martarella first took her students to nearby Wildcat Creek, which flows from the East Bay hills through the Richmond flatlands to the Bay. But she needed to find a place where her high school students could tutor elementary school children as well, and the school lacked the funds to take all of them on a field trip. Martarella decided that if she couldn’t take the kids to the creek, she would bring a creek to them.

“So we built a ‘pretend’ creek,” she explains.

Martarella had noticed a derelict piece of land behind the high school, piled high with trash but just big enough for creating a creek. She envisioned it as an outdoor science classroom where her students could learn to monitor water quality, study the insects and animals that live in and around creeks, and then teach younger children from the elementary school next door.

With help from several Chevron engineers, who volunteered time and materials, construction of the 70-foot-long creek began. “We hauled five or six truckloads of trash out of there,” says Martarella. “We worked after school, on weekends, even during Easter break. At one point, we had 72 people helping.”

Since the school’s social science teachers require students to perform 20 hours of community service each semester, Martarella made sure the creek was included as a project for which students could receive credit.

After the trash was removed, 15 Teacher Cadets carved out the creekbed and installed river rock donated by a local soils company and pumps, plastic, and plumbing donated by the Chevron engineers. They put a recirculation system in the creek and installed an irrigation system to nourish the riparian vegetation they planted alongside. The engineers even helped them install lighting. “They learned plumbing, engineering, and how to install an electrical system in the process,” says Martarella.

Because the students could manipulate flows in the creek, they were able to measure different velocities and see how flows altered the creek.

“They learned about how the lack of shade affects water quality,” says Martarella. “We did some reading about local creeks and found out that many of them are denuded of vegetation. Then we discussed how to fix the problem, what kinds of trees we needed to plant.”

Martarella also saw the creek as a good way to teach a variety of skills. She invited teachers of all subjects at the high school to work together on the creek. “Our creek became the perfect vehicle for project-based learning,” says Martarella. “We teach nothing in isolation.... We take the issue of water quality and teach about it in science, math, and English. We also want to gear our curricula toward multiple intelligences and learning styles—some kids learn better visually, others spatially—and toward kids with diverse personalities and perspectives.” But mainly Martarella wanted her students to experience what it was like to teach others.

“Our goal was to inspire the students, then have them create a curriculum and go into the elementary schools. They didn’t know anything about chemistry or environmental issues when we started. We asked them, ‘if you needed to teach about water, what would you do?’ We did some brainstorming, and the kids thought over what they had learned about the water cycle. Once we caught their attention, they took over.”

In science classes, students tested the creek’s water chemistry and learned to create charts and graphs of their data. In Martarella’s Teacher Cadets classes, they wrote and edited lab reports, and a newsletter, in English and Spanish, about runoff from fertilizers and pesticides that can impact creeks and the creatures that live in them. Later, the students distributed the newsletter to other high school and elementary students and to residents living near Wildcat and San Pablo creeks. Art students painted a mural on a wall next to the creek. Biology students collected fur and feathers and made plaster casts of the raccoon, bird, and cat tracks they found near the creek. The students even rehabilitated a dilapidated greenhouse next to the creek, which they used to grow native plants from seeds and cuttings donated by Wildcat Canyon Regional Park rangers.

The pretend creek had a ripple effect. When students from the J.O. Ford Elementary School next door saw what was happening at the demonstration creek, their interest was piqued. Martarella seized the opportunity for her Cadets to start teaching and had them create a creek-based curriculum for the younger students.

Lisa Owens-Viani is a Bay Area freelance writer specializing in science and the environment.

cover fall 1999

Fall 1999

Vol. 52:4