By Catherine Spearnak
Ocean Discovery Institute’s Living Lab gives hope to City Heights students
City Heights will soon have the nation’s most advanced educational ocean science lab for thousands of local students, many of whom have never even been to the beach.
“I am most excited that 20,000 kids are going to see themselves as scientists,” said Shara Fisler, executive director of the Ocean Discovery Institute in Pacific Beach.
The nonprofit institute, in conjunction with the San Diego Unified School District, will break ground in February 2016 on the Ocean Discovery Institute’s Living Lab in City Heights. Students are scheduled to begin classes at the lab, located off Fairmount Avenue on Manzanita Canyon, beginning in January 2017.
President Barack Obama recently recognized Fisler and the institute for their strides in science education, specifically among the low-income students who live in City Heights. Ocean Discovery Institute is a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.
All its efforts are focused in City Heights, a neighborhood where nearly 100 percent of students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch. The institute and its staff have been teaching science to about 6,000 City Heights students for about 10 years.
“They’re able to come in weekly with equipment that gives the kids real hands-on lessons to do,” said Casey Johnson, a sixth grade science and math teacher at Monroe Clark Middle School.
Johnson has worked at the school for 13 years, and with the ocean institute staff for 10 years.
“For example, they bring in layers of sand that are different colors so kids can dig for fossils. I just don’t have the resources to go collect sand for 70 kids. It’s a real asset.”
The school district last year agreed to spend $8 million to help build the Ocean Discovery Institute’s 11,000-square-foot Living Lab, bringing the total funding for the project to $13 million, just shy of the $15 million the lab will cost.
Until then, the Ocean Discovery Institute will create a curriculum, craft a comprehensive learning program and work with the city in securing needed construction permits. Initial plans call for the Living Lab to coordinate lessons with San Diego Unified’s science curriculum.
The Living Lab is expected to play a crucial role in boosting the academic performance of City Heights students. Roughly eight of every 10 graduates from the Ocean Discovery Institute’s Ocean Leaders program later enrolled at a four-year college or university. Included in the Ocean Leaders efforts are research trips to the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, Mexico.
Sonya Vargas, 23, a graduate of Hoover High, said the experience helped her get to college and graduate with a degree in zoology from UC Santa Barbara. She especially remembers all she learned in Baja.
“It was the most incredible experience I have ever had,” said Vargas, a recent graduate who now works at Recon Environmental in San Diego. “I just loved the experience of being able to work with real scientists.”
Ocean Discovery Institute officials said they chose City Heights because “while this neighborhood boasts significant cultural and linguistic richness, it also has great need with environmental, social and educational challenges closely intertwined.”
The Living Lab, the officials point out, will be built at the head of Manzanita Canyon, an urban canyon within one mile of 14 public schools.
The well-known architect Rob Wellington Quigley will design the lab. Quigley designed the city’s domed Central Public Library in East Village as well as The New Children’s Museum downtown.
The Living Lab will have two laboratories totally open to Manzanita Canyon so students can do labs inside while having access to the outdoors, unlike normal school buildings, Quigley said.
“It’s a unique building because the institute’s so unique,” he said, complimenting the school district’s openness to creative proposals in how the design was built. “This building opens up, I should say, with the blessings of the school district.”
Under an agreement with the district, more than 10,000 students in City Heights will be able to learn in the lab. The building will top the precipice of a 30-acre swath of canyon land. The Ocean Discovery Institute will have responsibility for maintaining both the canyon and the lab.
“Really you’re giving an opportunity to kids,” teacher Casey Johnson said. “It’s a ticket out.”
—Catherine Spearnak is a San Diego-based freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.