Hands-on learning in Catalina

Although Mount Madonna School (California) is situated on a mountaintop amid 300-plus acres of meadow and woodlands, the students there are well acquainted with the wonders of the sea.

The school’s two-year marine science program includes a semester of marine biology and a semester of honors oceanography for all ninth- and tenth-grade students. Every year, the two classes travel to study the waters around Catalina Island. The ninth-graders participate in the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program (CELP), while the tenth-graders participate in programs at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, part of the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Sciences. These trips, during which students gain hands-on experience in the water and the lab alongside scientists, are eligible for credits in the University of California System. As a result of their mandatory participation in the trips, students graduate with the equivalent of five years of laboratory science experience.

“The Wrigley Center is situated in a marine-protected area that is studied by scientists from all over the world,” says science teacher Lisa Catterall. “The cove at the facility harbors an ecosystem that has been restored to a near pre-human level of biodiversity. The chance to view an intact ecosystem as a reference point for what’s possible in nature is what originally drew me to bring students to study at the center.”

During the students’ most recent five-day trip in May 2016, ninth-graders engaged in three exercises to complete the lab portion, then spent the rest of the time engaged in leadership and character-building activities designed to push them out of their comfort zones and prepare them for doing research on the water, including kayaking and high ropes courses.

The tenth-graders worked alongside university researchers collecting and recording data to support ongoing work and were in the water every day. “They put in 12-hour days identifying microorganisms collected in plankton, conducting research such as ethogram studies, examining bioluminescence, or observing garibaldi territorial behavior,” says teacher Nicole Culbertson.