Think of a day at the beach: Families lounge, laughing. Sandpipers race the waves. The sun dips low on the horizon. 7th graders track the movement patterns of marine mammals. One of these is not like the other…but it’s true. For 7th graders at Head-Royce, the ocean is both a source of joy and education.
Science teachers Kristin Dwelley, Gin Saepharn, and Ryan Garrity have teamed up with The Marine Mammal Center in Marin County to teach 7th grade students about ocean conservation, marine mammal rescue, and veterinary science. Their Ocean Ambassadors program connects middle school students with marine scientists and earned the 2019 Superintendent’s Award for Excellence in Museum Education––“an award that recognizes achievements in California museum programs serving K–12 students and teachers.”
“We updated the 8th grade science course to focus on the climate,” says Kristin Dwelley. “We then got feedback that 7th graders wanted a more engaging science curriculum, too.” Fine Arts teacher Cheye Pagel happens to volunteer at Marine Mammal Center each weekend and told the science team about Ocean Ambassadors, which works double-duty; it’s both an educational and civic engagement program, ensuring students “become the next generation of informed scientists and engaged citizens who will care for and ensure the health of our oceans and environment.”
After a year-long application process, Head-Royce was accepted into the program. Now our students get to learn science through the lens of marine biology. On this year’s Fallout, 7th graders toured the Marine Mammal Center for the first time, learning about caring for marine mammals. “Usually they end up there because they’re suffering from malnourishment or injured from a shark bite,” says Sabia L. ’25, adding, “Sometimes the animals—young seals—don’t know how to eat fish, so [the staff] makes a fish smoothie.”
Back in the classroom, teachers “use marine biology to teach the skills of science and how to be a critical thinker,” says Kristin. Ocean Ambassadors teachers receive access to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) curriculum and three Professional Development days.
The curriculum ensures students understand the real-world application behind their work. “We’ve learned about ecosystems and what type of scientist does what, so: ecologist, psychologist, oceanographer,” says Natalia M. ’25. “We get assigned a type of scientist––I’m a botanist––and we learn how to make proper observations and inferences as that sort of scientist.”
This week began with an unlabeled data set. Working in teams of three, 7th graders mapped their data points onto an illustration of the West Coast.
By Wednesday, 7th graders had figured out what species they’d been assigned. “We have the California Sea Lion,” says Sabia L. ’25, “We’re tracking where the animal went and we compared it to descriptions of marine mammals.”
The lesson “was a little messy because it’s real data,” admits Kristin. “Not every individual acts like the average of its species. So students understood what the Pacific Harbor Seal tends to do… but it’s tends.”
Next, each group learned more about their particular animals and prepared to give oral presentations, using animal pelts on loan from the Marine Mammal Center as their visual aids.
Stopping by one group, the teacher asks about the key characteristics of the Otaridae family. “It’s not a true seal, because it has ear flaps,” one student points out. Another notices the claws. “The fact it doesn’t have claws shows you the taxonomy.”
“And the Harbor Seal is the only seal that has spots,” adds Kristin Dwelley. “If you see something in the ocean that has spots––and you’re sure it’s not a Dalmation––then it’s a Harbor Seal.”
Before touching the specimens—eight in total: six pelts, one dorsal fin, and a bag of Elephant Seal molted fur—the students wash their hands. The energy in the room is giddy and a little uncertain—both from the oddity of an up-close encounter with a deceased animal and nerves about their presentations.
“One key skill in this course is oral presentation,” says Kristin. “Students demonstrate the information and skills they learn as much through presentations as written evaluations.”
Kristin reminds her class that the pelts come from animals that have passed away due to natural causes. Reading the Ocean Ambassadors’ statement, she says, “Remember: As a center dedicated to the study of marine mammals, we would never harm a mammal to collect any specimens.”
In turn, the students gather around each pelt and listen to their peers point out the animal’s characteristics. This is certainly not a classroom based on rote memorization, but rather, the four Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication.
Students now understand the classification of organisms, because they can see and touch the difference between species––a rare opportunity, considering it is both illegal and dangerous to get close to a living marine mammal.
Whether or not these students grow up to be marine biologists, they’ll understand critical thinking and the importance of protecting our oceans. As we’ve seen with Fridays for Future, young people make excellent environmental ambassadors.
Bird's Eye View is a story series highlighting our work towards the initiatives and goals laid out in our Strategic Plan: Bridge to 2022.