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UC Berkeley Web Feature

 Faith, 13, holds a terrestrial snail she found in the leaf litter during a hike at Angelo Coast Range Reserve. Faith, 13, holds a terrestrial snail she found in the leaf litter during a hike at Angelo Coast Range Reserve. (Betsy Mitchell photo)

Biodiversity project lets Richmond seventh graders explore UC Berkeley's nature reserves

topkey  Experiencing California's Biodiversity: Slide show

Mendocino Co., Calif. – Raul, 12, was bursting with the secret, barely able to contain himself until all the students and teachers were gathered round.

"We saw a bear," he said, his eyes wide.

For Raul and many of his classmates at Richmond's Adams Middle School, spotting the bear was the highlight of a recent weekend trip to the Angelo Coast Range Reserve, a rugged research and teaching preserve run by the University of California, Berkeley, on the South Fork of the Eel River near Branscomb.

During the three-day trip, from April 29 to May 1, the students were pulled out of their city routine into an environment totally alien – and totally fun. They caught frogs and snared lizards, turned over logs in search of salamanders, netted and pinned insects, collected and pressed flowers, and kept track of it all in "lab" notebooks. And then there were the nighttime walks, campfire wiener roasts and s'mores.

This was no ordinary school field trip. Instead, it was part of a year-long interaction between the middle school class and UC Berkeley graduate students, who run the entire program with the resources of the UC Berkeley Natural History Museums – their bug, plant, vertebrate and fossil collections – and the UC Reserve System. The graduate students also teach weekly science lessons at the school and take the youngsters on other nature outings.

"We teach about these things in seventh grade life sciences, but reading about it is not the same at all as collecting bugs and pinning them yourself, or gathering and categorizing plants," said the seventh gradersā teacher, Peg Dabel. A 16-year veteran of the Richmond school system, she admitted to having few resources for field trips of any kind. "I don't know how I could do this without the graduate student instructors, who bring not only interesting hands-on material, but also their scientific experiences," she said.

While UC Berkeley orchestrates many outreach activities at local schools, this program focuses on training graduate students to lead the teaching, said program coordinator Betsy Mitchell, a UC Berkeley zoologist who specializes in animal behavior. The graduate students design the curriculum, visit the schools each week bringing activities and teaching aids – such as dog skeletons, in the case of Dabel's class – and lead each class on field trips to the campus, to local parks and into the wilds of UC Berkeley's nature reserves.

The project, called Exploring California Biodiversity, is funded by the National Science Foundation to teach graduate students at UC Berkeley how to communicate science to K-12 students. Mitchell said it also encourages students from different disciplines and labs to interact and learn from each other.

UC Berkeley spider specialist Rosemary Gillespie, professor of environmental science, policy and management and director of the Essig Museum of Entomology, joined with other campus museums - the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Museum of Paleontology and Jepson and University Herbaria – for the three-year project. She said she sees an inability among many scientists to share the excitement of their work with the public. So while the program aims to acquaint local middle and high school students with research and the campus's museum collections, she said, its main focus is on the graduate students, the budding professionals in the scientific community.

"One of the primary goals is to help grad students in their ability to communicate to the general public," Gillespie said. "The idea is that they get better at being able to talk to people and show people what's exciting about what they do, and often you find that gives new meaning to their own research."

That's certainly true for Brian Kraatz, a graduate student in integrative biology who teamed with Meredith Thomsen, who recently earned her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, to teach Dabel's class.

"It keeps me sane," he said of his middle school teaching. "I love research, but at some point it just seems like play," unrelated to the real world.

Kraatz, part of the first generation in his family to go to college, knows how hard it can be for K-12 students to look ahead to college, let alone consider science as a career.

"It's about showing them options," he said of the program. "I don't focus so much on learning facts, but on showing them what's possible, what they can do if they go to college."

"Here is the perfect opportunity to work with minority communities to show them what Berkeley has to offer and show them that this (college) is within their reach," Gillespie said.

The program involves eight graduate students and eight undergraduates from the departments of integrative biology and environmental science, policy and management working in teams with five local schools to teach classes at Berkeley, El Cerrito, Richmond and Pittsburg high schools and at Adams Middle School.

At the Angelo reserve, Kraatz and Thomsen, together with Jack Tseng, who graduated last fall from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in integrative biology and will soon head to graduate school at the University of Southern California, made sure the Richmond kids had a good time. Tseng, in a feather-capped straw hat and equipped with binoculars and outdoor gear, led expeditions to find wildlife, checking woodpiles and logs for snakes, lizards and scorpions and bringing them back for show and tell. Thomsen, soon to join the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, spearheaded the plant collecting and pressing.

Kraatz, who recently embarked on a study of fossil rabbits and pikas in Mongolia, orchestrated the bug identification and pinning. Sweeping nets through the high meadow grass, the kids eagerly rushed back with their latest captives: buckeye and orange sulfur butterflies, beeflies and cicadas, cockroaches and a huge bumblebee.

"The best part was catching the bugs," said Faith, 13. "And I don't even like bugs."

Links:

Exploring California Biodiversity
Berkeley Natural History Museums
Angelo Coast Range Reserve
University of California Natural Reserve System