By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
SAN PEDRO — Adults sipped coffee and counted heads while their charges buzzed with energy. Undaunted by their early departure, Thurston Middle School’s sixth-graders oozed enthusiasm as they scanned the ocean, waiting for the ferries that would shuttle them to Catalina Island.
Student Mia Ocampo voiced high expectations as she stood with her friends. “I expect it to be the most fun thing in the world,” she said.
“I’m looking forward to the boat ride and the snorkeling,” said student Jack Halvorson. “I might see creatures I have never seen before.”
“This is the 17th time we’ve done this trip,” said Richard Selin, who has taught science at Thurston for 20 years and has participated on all of the school’s Catalina adventures. Although a virus outbreak among students made Thurston’s first visit to the island less than ideal, Selin said that all subsequent expeditions have been successful.
The early-in-the-year excursion helps classmates from the town’s two elementary schools establish new friendships and lessen established cliques, said Selin. Fellow science teacher Bjorn Avila agreed. “The trip really melds the sixth-graders and forms them into a cohesive group,” Avila said.
Although the social component is important, science studies are the driving force behind this journey. In addition to the Common Core-aligned instruction provided by the program, teachers Selin and Avila also lead their students in carefully developed field studies.
“We break them into small groups and run a lab to study how and why sand is transported,” Avila said. “The kids gather samples and collect data from the beach while we are there. We document our findings and then refer to them in class throughout the year.”
The program’s snorkeling experience offers multiple benefits, according to Selin. “We snorkel every day, and sometimes at night, which allows students to see and appreciate the beauty of the kelp forest,” he said. “The added advantage is the fact that these kids develop a life-long appreciation for snorkeling. By making this part of the collective sixth-grade experience, we are basically creating a community of snorkelers in Laguna.”
Both Selin and Avila praised the multitude of parents who have supported this trip over the years. Selin said that 24 parents were traveling with this year’s group of 230 students, at least one parent for every 10 children. Totaling volunteers from the past 17 trips, he estimated that over 600 parents have journeyed with the Thurston campers.
“The parent chaperones pay their own way, give up four full days, and work really hard around the clock. I’m always very proud of our parents’ commitment,” Selin said.
“I want to see Catalina through the eyes of a sixth-grader,” chaperone Shawna Sundstrom said. “My daughter and I love camping, so I’m up for the adventure.” She said her only concern was the swimming and kayak test. “When we get to the island, we have to flip the kayak and then turn it back over to show that we can handle it in the water. That’s the only thing I’m worried about.”
Parent Mark Waters’ concern was slightly different. “I’m a little worried about seasickness on the ferry ride,” he commented. “But I have Dramamine in hand, so I should be fine.”
As the ferries docked, the students shouldered their bags and headed for the gangplank.
“I can’t wait to have fun with my friends,” said Evan Pikoos.
“I know it’s going to be great,” Hannah Kaiser bubbled. “I’m lucky to be in such a great community and be able to take trips like this.”
The group will spend three nights sleeping in tents and then return to Laguna on Friday, Oct. 6.
“After the experiences they have in Catalina, the kids come back as better stewards of the environment,” said Selin. “And that ultimately benefits everyone in Laguna Beach.”