Learning Matters: Finding hope in seaweed

I first heard the word "ecology" from my seventh-grade history teacher, and the relationship between organisms and their environment has been of interest to me ever since.

As a parent, I did my part with teachers and others to instill environmental awareness among our children and their classmates. I joined with Scouts to plant trees and pick up trash. I taught quite a few nature-themed songs and read many a tree-focused book to school children.

I've treasured our family's camping trips, and I love watching for wildlife of every sort. After my smog-filled summers growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, I came to feel we were making progress with our environment.

More recently, however, with the science of climate change and the political climate so frequently colliding, the balance of nature has become more of a worry for me — especially since becoming a grandmother three years ago.

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How many times have we heard our elders say, "It's not me I worry about; I worry about our grandchildren." I now share that sentiment.

So it came as a comfort to get an email recently from the publicist for Scholastic, co-sponsor with Lexus of the Lexus Eco Challenge, a national scholarship competition for teens to "inspire and empower young people to learn about the environment and take steps to make it better for their communities and world."

For three years now, Jocelyn Kalsmith has written to tell me that Clark Magnet High School teacher Domenique Evans-Bye "did it again!" This year, Evans-Bye's seven-student "EcoNarcs 3.0" team won $10,000 as a western region winner, and it's in the running for the $30,000 grand prize. This makes the seventh first-place regional prize for her students; her 2011 team won the grand prize.

Kalsmith shared the team's description of their project. "An invasive species called 'Sargassum horneri' was first collected in California's Long Beach Harbor in 2003 and has since spread widely on the coast, displacing types of seaweed on which lots of organisms rely for food… The students snorkeled and gathered samples, conducted a chemical analysis… mapped their sightings using geographic information system mapping software, and guest lectured at a nearby college on their research."

In their submission for the grand prize, the students will report on efforts to expand their research and findings globally and to propose possible solutions.

Already, with the help of a computer application they developed in class, they are gathering data from diving clubs on multiple coasts, analyzing the reach of "devil weed" and looking at commercial applications that might speed its harvest and help restore the native habitats.

They've also learned about legislation affecting the problem. Some team members are researching how the Marine Life Protection Act might be amended to allow for the removal of non-native, invasive species from protected waters.

There's just so much to like about Evans-Bye's classes.

She credits her teams' successes to Clark founding principal Doug Dall's leadership.

"He never said this is what I want you to do and this is how I want you to do it," she wrote in an email last year, before Dall's retirement.

"But he opened all the doors… pointed us in the right direction, then set us free to design and build our own creative programs that integrate literacy, technology and core academic subjects to… benefit students across diverse college and career paths," she wrote.

Evans-Bye — a statewide Teacher of the Year finalist — wrote that she took Dall's approach in facilitating student projects, showing them the opportunities available and letting them choose what they want to pursue and how they want to implement their research.

The students who spoke with me in her class this week seem to love that approach.

Armen Sadeghi, a senior, learned global-information systems mapping last year in Evans-Bye's "Geology of Disasters" class. Now, he's the team cartographer, and he told me he realized watching last year's team that he wanted to be a part of it.

Project manager Anna Parsamayan organizes and delegates the work, matching the tasks to team member strengths, which include social media, chemical analysis, photography and art.

These students are already laying the groundwork for next year's team, planning to extend the research with the use of drones, provided they meet the district's guidelines. They're also renewing my hope for the world our grandchildren will inhabit.

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JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified School Board. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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