Senior Laura Wahr (pointing at meter stick), an intern with UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology, helps student scientists from Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School collect plant data at Crystal Cove State Park as part of Project CRYSTAL. Steve Zylius / UCI

“Fun” is not how most grade-schoolers would describe the subject of science. But when the classroom is Crystal Cove State Park and the lesson involves using tools such as meter sticks, soil moisture meters and leaf porometers, “fun” is the word on every student’s lips.

This is the second field trip to the Newport Beach site for the 30 children from Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in the Santa Ana Unified School District. The first was two months earlier, when they had explored the habitat and been introduced to the plants they’d be evaluating as part of Project CRYSTAL — which engages Orange County fourth- and fifth-graders in restoration research at the park.

  • Senior Laura Wahr (pointing at meter stick), an intern with UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology, helps student scientists from Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School collect plant data at Crystal Cove State Park as part of Project CRYSTAL. Steve Zylius / UCI

On this trip, the students, working in groups of four and mentored by University of California, Irvine undergraduates, are assigned to collect data from one of the 56 plots of land involved in an experiment comparing ecological restoration techniques. They carefully measure and record changes in the plants since their original visit, including growth, transpiration (evaporation of water from plant leaves) rates and soil moisture levels. When they return to school, they’ll analyze the data to help inform decisions about restoring the degraded and damaged parkland.

“It was fun that we studied the plants to see how they grow,” says fourth-grader Natalia Gutierrez. “I discovered that sometimes in the same plant, some leaves have less transpiration and some have more. It’s pretty exciting that when we go back to class, we get to figure out why.”

Fellow fourth-grader Alexander Contreras agrees. “Science is fun,” he says “I measured soil moisture and how much water the leaves evaporate. It was very interesting and I liked it a lot.”

Project CRYSTAL —  Cultivating & Researching Youth Systems Thinking Through Authentic Learning — is a partnership among UCI’s School of Education and Center for Environmental Biology, the Crystal Cove Conservancy, Crystal Cove State Park and Orange County School districts.

Initiated in 2015, it brings together scientists, teachers, undergraduate interns and activists to create lifelong science learners, boost students’ academic achievement and foster their passion for environmental stewardship. This year, children from Melrose and Rose Drive elementary schools in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District and from Davis Magnet School in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District — along with those from Roosevelt — are participating in Project CRYSTAL.

“We’re training the next generation of citizen scientists,” says Jennifer Long, education and outreach coordinator at UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology. “Crystal Cove and other state parks and open environments are living laboratories that serve as experimental and educational sites to learn about restoration ecology, as well as venues in which to develop educational programming that connects an informal environment with the formal environment of the classroom.”

The education research component of the program involves determining how children learn science, so as the students conduct their investigations, video cameras record their interactions with each other and the interns. Long and two UCI experts in science, technology, engineering and math education — Associate Professor Rossella Santagata and Assistant Professor Hosun Kang — will evaluate the recordings and collaborate with Roosevelt teachers on an integrated in-school and experiential curriculum to help advance STEM instruction.

“We recognize teachers are really the classroom authorities but are operating in a content area they aren’t familiar with,” Long says. “We want to provide them with the materials and tools they need and solicit their feedback and revise the curriculum so that it leverages the advantages of both formal and informal settings to improve student outcomes. We want our curriculum to be teacher-tested and teacher-refined.”

The Roosevelt classmates’ enthusiasm for Project CRYSTAL is shared by their teacher, Wendy Hammitt, and the the principal, Jaime Ramirez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at UCI in 1994. Both especially appreciate that the children are conducting meaningful hands-on research.

“They’re getting to collect data and conduct experiments alongside actual scientists out in the field,” Hammitt says. “I’ve been teaching for 21 years and my students have never done anything like this. I get to learn from it too, because the experts are here. It’s been fun — and a great partnership.”

Scientific knowledge isn’t the only takeaway, Ramirez notes. The kids are also getting practice in critical thinking, problem-solving and how to work in groups.

“This is just amazing,” he says of Project CRYSTAL. “I’d love to expand the program to more grades and take more field trips. This experience opens the door for many students, sparking their interest in pursuing further education, which is something that our school really promotes. This opportunity shows that learning can be enjoyable, and it could encourage them to consider college, even if they don’t want to be biologists or go into science.”

At least one of the children who visited Crystal Cove State Park is planning to follow in Ramirez’s academic footsteps and focus on science.

“It was fun,” says fifth-grader Sarahi Gutierrez. “We studied plants, figured out how much water is in the soil, and discovered that some plants have more water than others. I like it; I’m going to be a scientist.”

Project CRYSTAL has received support from the Crystal Cove Conservancy, the Nicholas Endowment and UCI.