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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

VENTURA FWO: CINMS MERITO Academy Strengthens Connection Between Local Students and Teachers With Nature

Region 8, November 16, 2009

by Kate Eschelbach, Ventura FWO
Over the past year, the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office (VFWO) Connecting People with Nature Program has been forging many partnerships with the local environmental education and outreach community. One of the partnerships that have blossomed during this time is with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s MERITO Academy Program (MERITO Program).


MERITO (Multicultural Education for Resource Issues Threatening Oceans), which means ‘merit’ in Spanish, is the multicultural education program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program.  The program aims to increase understanding of ocean-related threats, to build sanctuary stewardship, and motivate culturally diverse students to pursue careers in marine sciences.  The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) MERITO Program focuses on providing educational products, training and programs that reach the students, teachers, adults, and families living in the Santa Barbara Channel region and especially targeting local multi-cultural or underserved populations, such that the entire community can actively contribute to ocean preservation. 


The CINMS MERITO Program, which is lead by Rocio Lozano-Knowlton, partners with the Channel Islands Marine Resource Institute (whose involvement is lead by Shannon Newby, PhD of Oxnard College) to immerse 4th-7th grade underserved students in earth and ocean science education through the MERITO Program Academy. The MERITO Program’s core is a 7-module, 47-lesson program that has resulted in an active contribution to ocean protection by educated and engaged youth.   The MERITO Program has been piloted successfully in 4 counties served by Channel Islands and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries. The CINMS MERITO Academy has served 60 educators (75% teachers from Title 1 public schools) and 1700 students between 2006-2009 in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.


A highlight of the Program includes the diversity of field opportunities it provides.  One such field opportunity is a day-long field trip hosted by Island Packers, a boat concessionaire and provider of Channel Islands and Santa Barbara Channel-based educational programs centered out of Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors, in Ventura and Oxnard, California.  The students visit Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park for marine mammal observation and an interpretive hike on one of the islands with Island Packers.  Although the Program provides access to the Sanctuary itself, it also provides opportunities in a total of 10 field activities during 3 field trips for the students throughout the Ventura and Santa Barbara County area each year that emphasize the important connections between the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the surrounding watershed. 


In 2008, Kate Eschelbach, Education and Outreach Specialist for the VFWO, along with Mallory Eidson, a former VFWO SCEP student, attended both a teacher training workshop for the MERITO Academy teachers and the field trip to the Channel Islands to observe the educational activities and further examine the possibilities for partnership with the MERITO program.  What they discovered was that the opportunity to work with MERITO to reach members of the community and connect them with nature is a natural partnership in conservation education! Since that time, the MERITO Program and the VFWO have worked together to determine overlapping interests and needs and it has resulted in two avenues for partnership.


The first opportunity for partnership is through an identified need of the MERITO Program curriculum and an identified theme of the VFWO Connecting People with Nature Program, which is to incorporate climate change education into local environmental education efforts.  The MERITO Program curriculum currently has lesson plans within its 7 modules that are all aligned to the California State Standards. Yet, through feedback from the MERITO Academy teachers that have completed the program, a need and desire for the MERITO Program to include additional lessons on climate change in its final module ‘Everything is Connected’ was voiced by many Program participants.  Working together to apply for Connecting People with Nature funding through the Southwest Pacific Region this spring, the VFWO and MERITO Program acquired the funding to hire curriculum developer Maria Petuli, the Director of “Teach at the Beach” Educational Services, to work with staff from VFWO and the MERITO Program to incorporate four lesson plans and a field component related to climate change. The lessons will focus on ocean acidification and climate change effects on terrestrial plants and listed bird species in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. The curriculum developer will pilot the lesson plans with staff from VFWO and MERITO Academy during the 2009-2010 school year (using MERITO funds as a match).  Additionally, the curriculum developer (using MERITO funds as a match) and VFWO staff will train the educators who participate in the MERITO Academy program during the annual MERITO Academy Educators Workshops this winter.


Secondly, through development of climate change lessons within the MERITO Program curriculum, which will include instruction on phenology and its use as a tool to monitor and assess climate change, there will be opportunities for school-based monitoring activities of native plants that can be submitted to the national citizen-science database on phenology, Project BudBurst. Schools that wish to further develop these activities will have the opportunity to apply for Schoolyard Habitat Program funding, which would allow for in depth investigation and participation in this effort within their schoolyard, compliment the 10 field activities of the MERITO Program by tying in the school grounds as an important location within the watershed, and provide opportunities for students to engage in an outdoor project at their school that will provide habitat not only for native plants, pollinators and other local species, but a place for students to explore and connect with nature long into the future as well.


Exciting opportunities abound with this partnership and will continue to blossom into the future, with many thanks to the R8 Connecting People with Nature Team, the R8 Schoolyard Habitat Program and the Pacific Southwest Region for the funding opportunities to enable the start of a wonderful partnership between the USFWS and the MERITO Program!


Follow this link for more information on the CINMS MERITO Program’s education programs. 

Contact: Kate Eschelbach, Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, 2493 Portola Road, Suite B, Ventura, CA 93003, kate_eschelbach@fws.gov, 805.644.1766 x259

Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov