Parks present learning opportunities for students and researchers alike. Through citizen science, these two groups can work together to learn more about how Crystal Cove’s environment works and how we can help to preserve it. This spring, 5th grade students will help University of California, Irvine researchers and State Park land managers investigate these questions as Project CRYSTAL returns to Crystal Cove State Park for its second year.
Project CRYSTAL – short for “Cultivating and Researching Youth Systems Thinking through Authentic Learning” – is the result of a unique partnership between the UCI School of Education, UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology, Crystal Cove State Park, and Crystal Cove Alliance. During this innovative program, which involves a series of classroom lessons and two field trip excursions to the Michael & Tricia Berns Environmental Study Loop, 5th grade students work alongside CEB interns and CCA staff to investigate the best strategies to use in restoring Moro Canyon’s coastal sage scrub ecosystem.
This year, over 300 5th grade students, most of them from Title 1 schools in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, will take part in Project CRYSTAL. During the first field trips in March, students will explore the question of why Crystal Cove should be protected, while snapping photos and writing poems about the landscape and the organisms it shelters. After investigating these topics further and forming hypotheses back in their classroom, student researchers will return to the Park a second time in May to apply what they’ve learned by collecting data for an experiment investigating different restoration strategies. After analyzing the data in their classroom, student researchers will finally share their findings with UCI scientists and Crystal Cove State Park resource managers, helping them to understand the most effective ways to restore the park.
Layered on top of the 5th grade educational program is another UCI research project, this time based out of UCI’s School of Education. Through Project CRYSTAL, educational researchers are using design-based research to study how authentic science learning experiences in parks and other outdoor settings can help students develop a deeper understanding of ecological systems. Researchers are also investigating how to best train teachers to deliver this sort of curriculum in the classroom, which will allow CCA to improve and refine its professional development programs for teachers.
Project CRYSTAL is more than just a single field trip. Through this innovative program, 5th grade students become citizen scientists. By showing students the importance of this research, and their direct contributions to its success, it empowers them to perform better, and begins to cultivate a deep passion for the environment. Together, students and researchers can learn more about Crystal Cove and build knowledge that scientists and land managers will continue to refine and apply.