This year, fifth grade students from across Orange County are joining Crystal Cove Conservancy educators, UC Irvine scientists, and State Park land managers to investigate how to best protect and preserve threatened open spaces like Crystal Cove State Park through the Project CRYSTAL Community Science program.
Project CRYSTAL – short for “Cultivating and Researching Youth Systems Thinking through Authentic Learning” –is a result of a unique partnership between UC Irvine’s School of Education and Center for Environmental Biology (CEB), Crystal Cove State Park, and Crystal Cove Conservancy. The program invites students to step into the shoes of scientists as they partner with Crystal Cove Conservancy staff and CEB interns to investigate strategies that can be used to restore Moro Canyon’s rare coastal sage scrub ecosystem.
This school year, over 800 fifth grade students are taking part in Project CRYSTAL, with many of them joining us from low-income Title 1 elementary schools. Their participation is supported by partners such as Orange County Community Foundation, California State Parks Foundation, Southern California Edison, Western Digital Foundation, and Capital Group, whose donations have helped to underwrite the cost of buses and programming expenses to ensure that no costs are passed on to students.
Project CRYSTAL challenges young scientists to compare different restoration strategies as they help to restore an acre of land located behind the Moro Canyon ranger station. In past years, fifth graders investigated questions such as whether different species of seedlings needed to be fenced to keep them safe from rabbits. This year, students are working with scientists to investigate whether mulch made from dead invasive plants can be as effective at increasing soil moisture and helping seedlings grow as the normal woody mulch that is typically bought in stores.
For many of these students, the Project CRYSTAL research extends over the entire school year, linking classroom learning to field excursions at the Michael & Trica Berns Environmental Study Loop. On their first field trip outings starting in Fall 2018, students explored Moro Canyon, learned to identify some of the animals and plants that live there, and visited the restoration site to learn about this year’s research. Following their trip, students returned to the classroom to discuss these topics in further detail and made a hypothesis on which mulch treatment type they believed would be best at helping a seedling to grow.
In Spring 2019, fifth grade classes began returning on a second set of field trips to collect data for the ongoing experiment, measuring the size of the seedlings to determine how much they had grown and using a soil moisture meter to measure how much water was available in the soil in each mulch treatment. After collecting data, each class brought their data set back to their classroom for further analysis. Student research teams are tasked with analyzing the data, coming up with a recommendation based on their findings, and then finally sharing their recommendations back with their community, helping us to understand the most effective methods to restore the park. Since this year has been so wet due to all of the recent rain, some of their findings may be surprising!
Project CRYSTAL is more than just a field trip outing. It is an innovative program that inspires fifth grade students as they become community scientists. By contributing to community-based science, students directly contribute to conservation efforts at Crystal Cove State Park and take part in real scientific research, working their way through the scientific process alongside practicing scientists and university interns. Project CRYSTAL empowers students to see themselves as science practitioners and helps to create a deep connection and passion for the environment. Together, along with their partner scientists and land managers, students can continue to help us learn more about Crystal Cove State Park and its environment as they help us learn new lessons about restoration that scientists and land managers can continue to refine and apply.