Unexpected Alchemy Transforms Science Camp

Sixth-graders tried out kayaking and snorkeling on their Catalina Island science camp adventure.

An unofficial poll among Thurston Middle School sixth graders, who spent their third week of school at an outdoor science camp on Catalina Island, preferred snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking to more routine classroom exercises.

While science-based learning provided the trip’s backbone, the opportunity for students to bond in an off-campus environment provided the heart and soul that transformed the excursion into a treasured rite of passage for Laguna’s tweens.

“It’s the whole package that makes this thing work,” said veteran three-time chaperone Don Patillo.

Camp leader and Thurston science teacher Richard Selin says the 40 to 50 chaperones who volunteer each year hold the outing together. “We could not have done this trip without all the parents’ hard work and commitment,” agreed Thurston’s assistant principal Mike Modeer, who participated this year.

Sandwiched between the sighting of six California blue whales while en route to the island and a predawn thunder and lightning show before their departure, were three days of hands-on activities including snorkeling and a fish lab; kayaking and a bird lab; a vertebrates class; hands-on fish tank labs; a plankton lab; a water testing lab; conservancy hikes; squid dissection, and team-building activities.

“To me the experience is learning about our local ecology in an environment without buildings,” explained Selin. “I’m trying to get the kids to recognize that where they live is incredibly special to them. This is their spot.”

Selin and other chaperones say the excursion doubles as an icebreaker for kids who until this year attended different elementary schools, El Morro and Top of the World. In its early years, the science camp was scheduled later in the year when cliques were already established. When Selin realized the value of a bonding experience off campus, he pushed to hold the campout to the beginning of school when students are more open to new experiences and friendships.

Isabel Mansour, whose father, John, was a chaperone for the third time this year, found the campout to be a good mix between fun and learning and making new friends. She liked the hike to Parson’s beach on the other side of the island. “Just have a good time and don’t waste it,” she sagely advised future sixth-graders, emphasizing the value of a good tent.

India Boschet, who enjoyed the night hike and the abundance of stars visible on the island, echoed this advice. A TOW alum, India said she knew few El Morro students before and was glad for the chance to get to know them better. The days could be tiring, she admitted, getting up early and going to bed late, but overall, “it was worth it.”

For a number of students, the Catalina jaunt provided their first kayaking or snorkeling experience. This was Mackenzie Peasley’s first chance to go kayaking and peer into kelp beds. “It’s really pretty,” she said. She liked collecting plankton while aboard a boat and later examining the organism under a microscope back at camp. Equally cool was the chance to touch sting rays and leopard sharks, she said.

“It’s a really good time,” echoed Remington Cord, who professed to liking all of the activities, especially snorkeling, which he thought was prettier than in Hawaii. He also enjoyed learning about fish, kelp, vertebrates and invertebrates.

TOW alum Joie Selin said that in addition to having fun snorkeling and kayaking, she enjoyed getting to know the El Morro kids better, especially her tent mate. Organizers purposely mix El Morro and TOW alumni up when assigning tent mates for this very reason.

The work of the chaperones goes largely uncelebrated, Selin said, but parents unequivocally relish the opportunity to forge memories with their children.

This year 52 chaperones watched 230 kids, who were divided up into about 13 study groups with three to four chaperones per group. While Mountain and Sea Educational Adventures provides staff to lead the activities, the chaperones supervise the kids, make sure they are safe, especially in the water, herd them to appointed activities and deal with any issues that crop up.

Though most volunteer because their child is a sixth grader, this year’s lead chaperone, Robb Mitchell, participated for the first time even though his son went through the program two years ago.

He loved watching kids take to kayaking and snorkeling for the fist time and seeing bonds of friendship develop. He thinks that the parents get as much out of it as the kids.

“It’s one of the more interesting experiences in life” to be thrown together with your kids and all of their friends, said two-time past chaperone Randy Bader.

Returning chaperone Sarah Johnson signed up for her son’s trip this year despite being a working mom and having to finagle the time off. “To see the teachable moments” and to watch first timers conquer their fears, coupled with the “great experience with the other chaperones and the other kids,” made it all worthwhile, she said. “I think they’ll remember it forever.”


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