Exploring Nature in the City: Los Angeles Audubon's First Summer Program for Middle School Students

By Stacey Vigallon, Director of Interpretation

In July 2013 Los Angeles Audubon Education staff launched its first summer program for middle school students. With a focus on ecology and environmental science, our goal was to provide an educational bridge for students who had attended Politi Elementary School and were now in sixth and seventh grades at middle schools throughout Los Angeles. With binoculars in hand, we covered a lot of ground  – from the ocean to the Santa Monica Mountains. Students took notes and made sketches in their field notebooks, fostering observation skills and critical thinking. Lunchtime was an adventure too, a way to explore new cultures and connections to nature. Students tried falafel and hummus for the first time, ate seaweed chips, sampled five different kinds of tomatoes, and enjoyed peaches from the local farmers market for dessert every day. Kid-structured outdoor playtime was also an important aspect of the summer program. After lunch, students chose and organized their own activities – soccer, tag, frisbee, or even just hanging out in the shade of a sycamore. Check out the exciting itinerary and the photo highlights…

LAAS summerprogram hiking

Students hike along the lake trail at Franklin Canyon.

LAAS summerprogram 7thgrade

Seventh-graders enjoy lunch in Downtown LA. These students were in third grade when they helped install the native habitat at Politi Elementary.

Day 1: Meet the Grunion!

We kicked off our summer program with a pizza party and evening field trip for students and families to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium to meet the grunion. Our group of sixty people explored the aquarium, the fish nursery, and took silly photos dressed in marine animal costumes. Highlight of the night? Getting to hatch grunion eggs in tiny jars!

Day 2: Geology, Navigation, and Crafts at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area

During a geology-themed hike, students navigated the park with compasses and learned how geology, wildlife, and urbanization intersect. They worked in teams to build solar ovens that successfully baked chocolate chip cookies, and then decorated tote bags using hand-carved potato stamps and made notebooks from recycled computer disks.

LAAS summerprogram solarovens

Students give the thumbs-up for their solar ovens – they successfully baked chocolate-chip cookies!

LAAS summerprogram stamping

Students decorated their own tote bags with hand-carved potato stamps at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

Day 3: Ballona Saltwater Marsh

From Great Blue Herons to tiny marsh invertebrates, wildlife was the theme for our trip to the saltwater marsh. Students examined and sketched snails, nematode worms, and amphipods with the help of microscopes. We caught some of the beginning of fall migration along the Ballona Channel, and helped remove iceplant from a habitat restoration area. Best bird sighting of the day – White-tailed Kite!

LAAS summerprogram microscopes

Students study invertebrates and algae at the Ballona Satwater Marsh.

Day 4: Exploring the Santa Monica Mountains at Franklin Canyon

During our docent-led hike at Franklin Canyon, we learned about the plant materials that native peoples use (willows, acorns, tules), saw scores of turtles at the pond, and watched a Cooper’s Hawk come in for a landing at eye level just a few yards from us. At the Sooky Goldman Nature Center, each student embarked on a mini research project, using the books and displays available. Topics ranged from geodes to mountain lions to energy conservation. Much silliness ensued with the wildlife puppets.

LAAS summerprogram naturecenter

Students conduct mini research projects at the Sooky Goldman Nature Center in Franklin Canyon.

Day 5: Nature and Culture in Downtown LA

On the final day of the summer program, we visited Downtown LA with an eye for making nature connections while we toured the music complex and the Central Library. At the Walt Disney Concert Hall we learned that Frank Gehry included references to fish and the ocean in his design of the building, and we examined the natural materials used in the other music complex buildings, such as abalone shell, marble, and oak. After lunch we completed an urban hike through Downtown to the Central Library. Students got a fantastic tour of the teen resource center, learning how to research topics in the digital database and marveling at the dazzling array of young adult books and comics available for check-out. Almost everyone left with new library cards in hand.

Many thanks to Politi Elementary Principal Brad Rumble for helping us connect with students and parents, the families of Politi alumni for letting their children participate in this new program, and staff/docents at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, Ballona Saltwater Marsh, Franklin Canyon, Central Library, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And a huge thanks to the team of alumni from the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program (now in college or about to start college), who did an outstanding job of helping to lead middle-school students.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 1 Sep/Oct 2013