Growing STEM Experience in the Wetlands

Jul 1, 2015

High schooler Rodrigo García teachers the ecology of Watsonville's sloughs and lakes to elementary and middle school students.

Significantly fewer women, African Americans and Latinos go into scientific professions, that includes the environmental sciences. One Monterey Bay area organization has been training youth in watershed ecology, and getting them to teach others.

In a bungalow-style classroom a group of fourth and fifth graders enter and take their seats. They’re greeted by their instructor and a group of mentors.

Watsonville Wetlands Watch advocates for wetland issues and educates elementary, middle, and high school students. They enroll nine Pajaro Valley High School interns, called wetland stewards each year.

Seventeen-year-old Rodrigo García is a junior at Pajaro Valley High School. He applied to be a Wetlands Steward last spring.

Sharing Respect for Watsonville's Sloughs

"It was the first job he ever applied for," says Watsonville Wetlands educational programs director, Noelle Antolin, who has worked with García from the start.

"(He) went through a two week intensive program with us at the wetlands at the Wetland Educational Resource Center on the campus of Pajaro Valley High School. And that's where he learned about eco literacy, outdoor teaching skills, inquiry based learning, really relating to students on a level that is sort of visceral with them."

"We go around to middle schools, elementary schools and teach kids about the importance of the wetlands and why we should be preserving them," García explains.

Two-Way Education

Besides learning about the preservation of wetlands, elementary and middle school students build bonds with older students in their community.

"Today we’re doing lessons on birds and native plants," he says. "So we’re actually teaching them the difference between native plants and how they affect the environment. And how they affect animals that live here. And then we usually go out and play games that are educational themselves."

García has lived in Watsonville for 15 years. He’s tall, soft spoken, and very proud of his work.

"I never thought id be able to talk in a way that they’d pay attention to me," García says. "I never thought they’d think I’m fun. A lot of people don't think I’m that fun, but this program really helped bring that out."

Working Toward a Career

He says the love for his work started at home.

"I was born here in California, in Santa Cruz and my parents actually came from Michoacan, Mexico. Growing up my dad enjoyed plants himself. I actually also grew up with a lot of remedies that came from plants which really got me interested in them. Because they have many things they can give us. I wanna be one of the people that discover that."

Antolin says after completing the program a lot of stewards, "...go to schools like UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego and major in the fields of environmental science, green architecture, zoology."

Moving forward with his work is what García plans to do. He hopes to become an environmental scientist or ethnobotanist.

He was named the biggest ambassador for Watsonville Wetlands Watch, recruiting the most new students for next fall. And though there is a one-year limit on the Wetland Stewards Internship, he’ll participate in a four-week Summer Green Careers Institute where he will gain further experience at local green businesses.

This story was funded by Community Foundation Santa Cruz County.