Alameda students explore nature via innovative PORTS program
By Lou Fancher
If in a dozen years 10-year-old Emma Hernandez is an expert scientist specializing in the ecosystems of California’s Giant Sequoia trees, it will likely be due to PORTS, a new digital field trip program launched in 2018 by Save the Redwood League and California State Parks.
The Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS) has fourth-grade students like Hernandez at Paden Elementary School and children in K-12 classrooms in the Alameda Unified School District, the Bay Area, nationwide and 20 countries around the world participating in the free, comprehensive, experiential education initiative.
“By utilizing conferencing technology like Skype and Zoom, I am able to bring the magic of Calaveras Big Trees State Park into the classroom,” says Park Interpretive Specialist Jenny Comperda. “On the virtual field trip, the students and I hear and see each other through cameras, microphones and screens that are already in most classrooms. The students go on a virtual (45-minute) adventure nature walk with me and are engaged the entire time through questioning and sharing. We even do giant sequoia yoga together so they get in some exercise.”
The PORTS platform supports state park interpreters and Save the Redwood League scientists in 14 real-time study units that meet Common Core State Standards. The interactive field trips are a win-win proposition. For the parks system, future naturalists and the next generation of conservation-literate supporters are gained.
For students, especially those in Title 1 schools or coming from communities that experience geographic and social barriers to participation in state park programs, PORTS provides a unique opportunity. Free of common impediments — funding, timing and transportation — and connecting the Redwood and Sequoia field trips to lessons about mountains, John Muir, Yosemite National Park and President Theodore Roosevelt was timely for Emma’s teacher, William Green.
“This program has been beneficial for relating to our classroom curriculum,” says Green. “Tying in all this history, and the novel way we did so, was a boon for our students, especially as we are a Title I school. The great thing about this experience that has made a big impact is that they have gained a real sense of pride knowing that these behemoths of the forest are living in the state that they live in. They hadn’t made that connection, and it was a wonderful revelation when this came to light.”
Emma says what was most exciting was learning about the insects that eat bark and the birds that eat the insects in the Discovery Stump that once was a mighty sequoia 363 feet tall and took three weeks to cut after it fell in 1853. For her classmate, Bryce Rivas, age 9, animals are the priority.
“Monarchs,” he says, “they showed pictures and told us where you can find them. They said only 11 monarchs make it from Santa Cruz to where they travel each year in Mexico.” He learned that cutting down trees hurts animals, Bryce adds, because they lose their homes and become endangered. “And if there are no trees, people can’t breathe because trees provide us air,” he says.
Bryce, claiming avid interest in science, especially in the biology of turtles, explains the importance of a turtle’s shell before he says, “It’s cool to learn about (the parks) and animals, and if you learn, you can teach others.”
In her role with PORTS, Comperda shares downloadable materials about Calaveras Big Trees State Park’s 6,500-acre preserve in the central Sierra that allows teachers to expand the curriculum. Since September, she has led field trips with classrooms in the Bay Area, but also in Texas, Iowa, Indiana, New Jersey and internationally in Canada, Serbia, Romania and Greece. Students most often ask about being a park ranger, the difference between state and national parks, and if a tree has ever fallen on a person in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. (“Not that we know of,” says Comperda.)
Green finds the primary benefit is “bringing the world” to students. “They are learning that there is a much bigger and more exotic world away from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan areas — a world that is calm, peaceful and in this case older than virtually all other living things. These wild places are open to all people. All they need to do is get there; nature awaits them and has stories to tell.”
This month, Green’s classroom will visit Angel Island to learn about immigration, and in 2019 a trip to Columbia State Historic Park will explore the Gold Rush era. Other AUSD schools participating this fall in PORTS include Amelia Earhart, Edison, Otis, Maya LIn and Ruby Bridges elementary schools.