Hands-on science takes root in high school’s backyard

L.A. Cicero measuring tree

Brian Jensen, a student in the Redwood Environmental Academy of Leadership program, measured trees and plants during a trip to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve late last month. Bill Gomez, a longtime docent at the preserve, worked with the students during the class.

L.A. Cicero Rodolfo Dirzo

On a recent visit to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Professor Rodolfo Dirzo talked about various types of plants to Jovanni Martinez, a student at Redwood High School, and classroom teacher Travis Bench as part of the Redwood Environmental Academy of Leadership.

"To the left," high school senior Jovanni Martinez called out to his principal, Marshall Burgamy, who was scrambling on all fours through a thicket of shrubs while clasping one end of a length of transect tape. The pair was attempting to lay a straight, 50-meter course for a vegetation analysis at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

Also on hands and knees in the dirt, Rodolfo Dirzo, professor of biology at Stanford, emerged from the same patch of shrubbery, where he had been working side by side with three of Martinez's classmates.

Martinez and the other students are members of the Redwood Environmental Academy of Leadership (REAL), a Stanford-funded program that holds classes twice a week at Redwood High School—the only continuation campus in the Sequoia Union High School District—in Redwood City. The Jasper Ridge vegetation analysis is one portion of a special field trip that the four teens participated in that day.

Later that afternoon, the group analyzed the data in a classroom at Jasper Ridge. With the help of a Redwood High math teacher and two Jasper Ridge docents, the students calculated the density, frequency, dominance and value of importance of each species of plant they had encountered.

"They're really learning the concepts of ecology," said Dirzo, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and one of the program's founders, "but by doing activities, by doing the work of scientists themselves."

"Learning by doing is key when you have students that have really never had a successful scientific experience or class," added Cindy Wilber, the education coordinator at Jasper Ridge and REAL's other founder.

Many of the approximately 30 students involved in the program have visited the preserve, just west of campus. But most of the curriculum focuses on ecology-related activities that the students conduct back at Redwood High.

The REAL program, now nearing the end of its first year, is funded by a grant from the Stanford Initiative on Improving K-12 Education, one of the multidisciplinary initiatives sponsored by the university's $4.3 billion fundraising campaign, The Stanford Challenge. Dirzo and Wilber co-wrote a grant proposal, in collaboration with Burgamy, and theirs was one of eight pilot projects accepted for the K-12 initiative's first round of funding for the 2008-09 year.

"I am humbled that they [Dirzo and Wilber] have taken invaluable time out of their many important responsibilities to plan, implement and collaborate for countless hours on this small high school program for underserved kids," Burgamy said. About 70 percent of the students are Latino, 40 percent are English-language learners, and 70 percent are from low-income households, according to Burgamy.

Daily schedule

REAL takes place on a plot of land behind Redwood High that is about as big as a football field. To get there, participants cross a bridge over Cordilleras Creek, which runs adjacent to the school and represents the heart of the program. "The students are in the creek completing water flow analysis, pH tests and gathering specimens for data collection," Burgamy said.

The teens study how the creek fits into the ecosystem in a broader context, how development has changed the creek ecosystem over the years and what the students' responsibilities are as environmental stewards of the creek.

"You guys own this whole portion of this bigger watershed," Raynelle Rino, REAL's program manager, told the students at the beginning of the year.

A garden, currently dominated by weeds, occupies a large portion of the land. Classes take place on a small patio or in an adjacent shed that serves as the students' laboratory. Nearby is a small greenhouse.

The curriculum is organized into three-week modules that focus on topics such as species interaction or ecosystem services. Dirzo lectures on species interactions—the ecological relationships of plants and animals. Specifically, he covers how these interactions determine plant fitness and influence evolution. Students then come up with their own examples of species interactions with which they are familiar.

The approximately 300 students enrolled in Redwood High attend classes either in the morning or afternoon. Students must be recommended by their teachers in order to participate in REAL. About 15 students participate per day, although the number varies because students can graduate whenever they have accumulated enough credits.

Burgamy likes to open each session by reading a poem and encouraging the students to say what they are thankful for that day. Then a brief lecture is given, either by Rino, a teacher from Redwood High, or a student volunteer or faculty member from Stanford.

Finally, REAL's students engage in an activity related to the day's topic. For example, during the session on ecosystem services, Redwood High history teacher Maureen Svenson asked the students to study old maps of Redwood City to see how development had changed the land. Then, the students—pretending to be landscape designers themselves—walked the land and created development plans that they would later present to their classmates.

"This … has really made me look at the curriculum and come up with things that are much more interdisciplinary than I [otherwise] would have," Svenson said. "It's been a really creative exercise for me."


Dirzo stressed that being a part of the Stanford K-12 initiative's grant program has been instrumental in fostering interdisciplinary collaborations.

Occasionally, the grant winners get together to report on the progress of the eight pilot projects. "People get excited about what we're doing, and we get excited about what others are doing," Dirzo said.

For example, fellow grant-winner philosophy Professor Rega Wood and classics graduate student Eva St. Claire helped design a lesson plan about the use of Latin in scientific vocabulary, in order to help REAL students understand the words they encounter in class.

Thanks to another collaboration with grant-winner Professor Roy Pea in the School of Education, REAL will soon be international. Via the Internet, Skype calls and YouTube videos, Redwood High students will correspond and share data with students in Sweden and with participants of similar restoration projects that Dirzo and Wilber lead in Mexico.

"This will connect students doing ecology across the globe, from Redwood City and Yucatan to the state of Veracruz and Sweden," Wilber said.

She and Dirzo plan to continue the program beyond the pilot phase and are applying for additional funding.

Chelsea Anne Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.