San Jose’s “Central Park” Becomes a Living Lab

The “river walk” has been a piece of Guadalupe River Park Conservancy’s (GRPC) science-based nature education program for more than 10 years. If you strolled along San Jose’s Guadalupe River, you were likely to see young children knee-deep in the water.

Wearing waders, the kids were absorbed in their task, searching for fish, amphibians, and macroinvertebrates.  Later, the students would use scientific equipment to test the water quality and learn mathematical equations for calculating the speed of its flow.

Access to nature is not simple for many of San Jose and Santa Clara County kids. Children and youth live in apartment complexes without yards or in neighborhoods where parents may not feel safe letting their kids play outdoors.

GRPC-hosted field trips for local students in kindergarten through eighth grade, along with afterschool and summer programming in San Jose’s “central park,” makes nature and science learning possible, engaging and relevant. The conservancy offers scholarships to Title I schools, which make up more than half the field trips, and a free summer day camp.

It’s wonderful for students to see how what they are learning in school also applies to the community.

However, with California plagued by drought the past several years, GPRC found it had to get creative with its curriculum. Staff could no longer let students trudge through the Guadalupe River because the habitat had to be protected.

Instead, field trip participants now examine macroinvertebrates in handmade microhabitats, and learn to test how animals are responding to the changing water quality.

It is one thing for a 10-year-old to learn about the drought in a classroom, and another thing altogether to observe and interact with its effects. The students learn about current events by engaging with their environment.

“It’s wonderful for students to see how what they are learning in school also applies to the community,” said a fifth-grade teacher whose students went on the “Hooked on Chinooks” field trip. The hands-on trip, based on science and language-arts standards, teaches kids about native species and introduces them to science careers.

That is the type of lesson that benefits students, their teachers and all who care about the environment.