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Students become ‘Estuary Explorers’ at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

December 22, 2017

Elkhorn Elementary School in California serves a predominantly low-income, Hispanic community that resides within the Elkhorn Slough watershed. In 2014, the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserveoffsite link (NERR) received a Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) grant to create the Estuary Explorers Cluboffsite link, an afterschool program in partnership with Elkhorn Elementary School. This program provides a unique opportunity for local students to experience the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.

Estuary Explorers conduct field work at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The Estuary Explorers Club is a one-day-a-week after school program that engages approximately 80 to 100 second through fifth grade students in watershed-focused activities. Beginning in September, these local school children arrive at the gates of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve ready to explore. This program immerses children in the environment through field-walks, hands-on activities, and direct interactions with reserve scientists.

Over the past three years, the Explorers have conducted field studies and collected data through activities that take them into the field with Reserve researchers and stewardship staff. Lessons address natural resource priorities in Elkhorn Slough: water quality and invasive species, marine and coastal habitat protection, as well as coastal resiliency and climate change. Students gain skills working with water quality tools like the Secchi disk and salinity refractometers as they examine the Slough using the same tools NOAA scientists use.

Estuary Explorers at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Video: Estuary Explorers at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The Explorers adopted two restoration sites that they visit several times throughout the year for weeding and planting. They have learned about the value of restoring native plants to an area and have seen the bounty of their work as the sites have expanded. “I love dirt! I use to be afraid, but now I want to roll in it!” said one participant.

At the end of each year, Estuary Explorers work in teams to create posters that address the connections between the watershed, the estuarine ecosystem and their own lives. Estuary Explorers present their projects at an evening for family and friends. Parent comments are typically enthusiastically in support: “She loves being an Estuary Explorer and coming to the Reserve, she can’t talk enough about it!” said one parent.

The true success of this program is watching the students return each year excited to take on the role of mentor. First year 2nd graders are now 5th graders and they have developed into passionate stewards for the Reserve and confidently share lessons they have learned with younger students.

A student presents her project on the willow tree at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.
A student presents her project on the willow tree at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. (Virginia Guhin/Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve)

The long term goal of the Elkhorn Slough Education team is to provide ongoing estuarine education experiences for children to enrich their lives and ultimately benefit the health of the Elkhorn Slough and the surrounding coastal ecosystems. This is just one of the many education efforts underway across this country that engage students and communities in National Estuarine Research Reserves.