This hands-on STEM project lets students study “real world” concepts, adding relevancy to their classroom lessons. / Photo courtesy of The O’Farrell Charter School
This hands-on STEM project lets students study “real world” concepts, adding relevancy to their classroom lessons. / Photo courtesy of The O’Farrell Charter School

By Sarah Beauchemin

The O’Farrell Charter School believes community stewardship is a fundamental part of education. It helps kids learn to work together, give back, and discover more about the city they live in. 

Outreach activities are one of the ways that OCS, San Diego’s leading TK-12 AVID Schoolwide Site of Distinction, helps shape successful futures for their underrepresented student body.

OCS middle school students are required to perform 12 community service hours each school year; elementary school students perform 6 hours. One popular way OCS middle school students can earn some of these hours is through the middle school’s annual cleanup event.

Annual cleanup events usually take place at a local beach or neighborhood. But this year, OCS did something new. Middle schoolers went to the beach to conduct STEM science activities instead of doing a cleanup there. Afterward, they held their cleanup event right on campus at OCS. 

Hands-on STEM activities build real-life connections 

Previous years’ beach cleanups gave OCS middle schoolers valuable insight into environmental stewardship and the importance of caring for our coastal habitats. 

But OCS instructors felt that their students could benefit even more by applying their school science curriculum to their beach visit. 

“We wanted to give students an opportunity to make connections between what they are learning in school and the actual beach environment,” said Katie Reamer, OCS sixth-grade instructor and team leader. 

OCS students arrived at Tourmaline Beach ready to conduct the experiments and scientific observation methods they learned in class.

“By focusing on STEM activities at the beach, instead of simply doing a beach cleanup, students get to do hands-on scientific work, demonstrating how scientists monitor the health of the ecosystem,” said Rebecca Jaffe, OCS middle school science teacher. 

Students’ hands-on scientific work included both beach and species monitoring and research. 

“Our primary focus was two-fold: assess the health of the beach ecosystem by counting species in the tidepools, and use a keystone species (the mole crab) as an indicator of general beach ecosystem health,” said Paul Ruiz, OCS instructor and middle school science department chair.

For students to accomplish this, OCS instructors set up work two stations – one was for collecting mole crabs and identifying their sex, and the other was tidepooling. 

Students were thrilled to finally put their lessons into practical application. Many felt changed by getting to experience the shore creatures and their habitats firsthand.

“The week before the beach day, students complained to me, saying things like, ‘I’m not going to touch mole crabs,’” Ruiz said. “But by the time we got to the beach, all I heard was, ‘Find one for me, I haven’t had a chance to hold one yet!’ They were way into it.” 

There is also a clear link between the beach field trip and students’ increased engagement in academics. 

“My students are definitely more enthusiastic about marine biology and environmental science now after the field trip,” Jaffe said. In her mind, this in itself is a huge measure of success. It confirms that they can think about science as a real, possible career. 

“I helped create this field trip so that students would be able to see themselves as scientists,” she said. 

Pride in cleaning up your own backyard 

Hosting the annual cleanup event for the first time at the OCS campus was an eye-opening experience for many middle schoolers.

“Our campus is cared for by a hard-working team of custodians, and yet we still can find many pieces of litter tucked away around bushes and buildings,” Ruiz said. “We knew the kids would have a better understanding of their impact if we cleaned familiar surroundings.”

Students not only picked up trash around campus, but they then also graphed and analyzed the trash. 

“They now have a much better idea of how much trash our school actually produces, and which types of trash we most commonly produce,” Jaffe said. 

After the cleanup, students also participated in a Socratic seminar on an article about microplastics and their impact on the environment. They were encouraged to think critically about what they had just accomplished, and to listen closely to their peers’ thoughts

The cleanup event also increased students’ awareness about their own daily actions and how they may affect the environment. 

“Our students were obviously already aware of the negative impacts humans have on the environment,” Jaffe said. “But now they can see their individual impact, and begin to minimize their impact in ways they might not have understood prior to the field trip.” 

Ruiz agreed, noting that he’s seen the change in his own classroom too. 

“My students have really started rethinking their daily habits,” he said. “They have started raising concerns about using things like plastic utensils and mechanical pencils, which use plastic instead of wood.”  

Beyond environmental stewardship, the cleanup event makes students aware of the many other ways they can make a difference in the world as a whole. 

“After community and school clean ups I often hear students comment about how good they feel,” Reams said. “We want students to make the connection between doing good and feeling good.” 

[call_to_action color=” button_text=’Learn more’ button_url=’’]For more information on innovative outreach programs such as these, visit The O’Farrell Charter School online at[/call_to_action]

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