Pegasus School fifth-graders are testing ocean water bacteria levels in coastal Orange County and working with the Surfrider Foundation to post their findings online.
It's part of a science curriculum that allows Pamela Conti, the Huntington Beach school's environmental director, to ditch worksheets in favor of applied experience.
"If you can offer real-world problems with hands-on science activities that are meaningful, it's the best way to get kids excited about science in general," Conti said of the partnership with Surfrider's Huntington Beach and Seal Beach chapter.
Surfrider funded an $8,000 lab at the private school and has provided Conti's fifth-graders with supplies for the past five years. Materials cost about $7 per student.
Conti collects ocean water samples into tiny bags before she heads to work. Some of the fifth-graders also volunteer to bring in samples with help from their parents.
Hays Hopkins, 11, goes to the beach with his father before school to boogie board and collect samples for class.
"It's cold, but I like going into the water, and it's important because it wouldn't be good if I'm swimming in dirty water," Hays said.
Water samples must be kept on ice and tested within six hours. The process tests for enterococcus bacteria, Conti said, using the same test county officials employ.
"Enterococcus bacteria are coliform bacteria that indicate human or animal waste and other pathogens that are also found in fecal matter that can make people sick with the stomach flu, rashes, eye and ear infections or worse," according to Surfrider's Blue Water Task Force website.
"If that's present, the worst types of bacteria are present as well," Conti said, adding that higher bacteria levels have been found by her class at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point than those at Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
Conti theorizes that the stiller water in Doheny's harbor slows the dilution of trash, pet waste and other pollutants.
The students' test results are later posted on the the Blue Water Task Force web page.
Conti said students feel "empowered" to alert the public to their findings.
They begin testing in November and conclude in March.
"If we're bombarding students with negative things about the environment, it gets overwhelming," Conti said. "I try and present things in a way that they have the possibility to do good and help."