March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Science Teacher Does Big Things

Posted: Monday, November 1st, 2010

by Valerie Joyner
Introducing S.T.R.A.W. —Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed
It all started with one student asking a simple question, “How can we save an endangered species”?  Who would know that this question would lead to a powerful project-based watershed project that has restored over 20 miles of creeks banks, planted over 25,000 native plants, and served more than 25,000 students?  The STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) Project began in 1992 when the students in Ms. Laurette Rogers’ fourth grade class saw a video on endangered species.STRAW - girls working

The video naturally led to a discussion on what her students could do and how she could empower them to become good stewards of the land.  Ms. Rogers knew immediately that her students needed to do something big!

The class looked for an endangered species they could adopt and investigate. It wasn’t to be a warm cuddly mammal, but the small California Freshwater Shrimp, a native endangered invertebrate living in the Stemple Creek Watershed area of Sonoma and Marin counties.  The students found that the numbers of this tiny species were rapidly declining in their local watershed.  In some areas of the creek there were only 100 shrimp left, so how to save the shrimp was the bigger question Rogers and her students began to explore.

The class worked together on a plan to repair their local watershed.  Their investigations and research showed them a lack of protective shelter and higher water temperatures were impacting the survival of the shrimp.  The students decided to plant native trees and other plants along Stemple Creek.

To save their endangered species the students knew they needed to improve the shrimp’s natural habitat, but the plan came with a challenge.  With 90 percent of the watershed land owned by local ranchers and farmers, the creek beds they wanted to restore might not be accessible. New community  partnerships had to be developed with the ranchers and farmers, so the students would be able to work on the privately owned land. Initially, the ranchers were skeptical of student ideas, but soon came to realize that their land would benefit.

Finally, the long awaited watershed restoration day arrived.  The students armed themselves with shovels, hoes, gloves, and native plants.  They learned how to plant willow branches and willow wattles (woven willow branches).  They spent their day outdoors planting and wondering what impact their studies and work would have on their adopted shrimp.  Five months later when they returned to the creek they found the willows budding, soon to make shade and prevent erosion along the banks and encourage the shrimp and other riparian species to multiply.

This was just the beginning of STRAW, a successful project-based environmental education project that arose from one student’s question.  Today STRAW operates as an educational program of The Bay Institute, and it bring students, teachers, scientists, and community members together to restore local watersheds in Sonoma, Napa, Solano, and Marin Counties.  To date there have been over 275 watershed projects.  STRAW continues to grow each year with new projects and partnerships.

STRAW Summer Institute

Every summer the Bay Institute STRAW Project provides its network teachers with a free three day Summer Institute.  The institute helps teachers restore their passion for teaching by presenting learning as it would be presented to students.  There’s an essential emphasis on fitting required curriculum standards into project-based learning and connecting the smaller current picture to the wider future vision.  The course is designed to provide STRAW teachers with opportunities to experience firsthand watershed-based centers for students, expert speakers, field trips, and networking opportunities.  This past summer STRAW teachers gathered on a boat on the San Francisco Bay to look for invertebrates and later learn more about it at the Aquarium of the Bay.

The Bay Institute’s STRAW Project Website (http://www.bay.org/watershed-education/about-straw) showcases previous projects, and shares the goals and history of the project, as well as resources, partners, and opportunities. Another great way to get acquainted with STRAW is through the short video Taking Root: Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=ylLAOUOkG8s).

The STRAW experience is so inspiring, a 35 minute documentary called A Simple Question: The Story of the STRAW Project (http://www.asimplequestion.org/) has won five awards, most recently the ‘Spirit of Activism Award’ at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival in January of 2010.

Valerie Joyner is a second grade teacher in Petaluma and is CSTA’s region 1 director.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

One Response

  1. What an outstanding and meaningful program…
    bringing the children to the mud and the shrimp…

    If now, only the whole world will pick-up a shovel
    and begin to restore, and to HEAL good ‘ol Mother
    Earth.

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