Students immersed in pilot project

Monterey takes students outdoors for one-year ocean sciences program

Students hit the water in a series of sea kayaking exercises that leads up to an overnight on Discovery Island in the new ocean studies program at Monterey middle school.

Students hit the water in a series of sea kayaking exercises that leads up to an overnight on Discovery Island in the new ocean studies program at Monterey middle school.

Tubs of water crawling with sea critters settled amid groups of Grade 6 and 7 students on a Thursday morning at Monterey middle school has the makings of an epic water fight. Instead, the respectful youngsters dip hands into water, some tentatively others enthusiastically, to stroke a sea star or gently poke a scallop into flitting around its bucket.

It’s the hands-on kind of day that is pretty common for the 28 students of the pilot Monterey ocean sciences program for Grade 7 students.

“It’s been a dream come true to put together this program,” said teacher Mark Brown, who started crafting it a couple years ago. “I came at teaching late, after 14 years as a professional sea kayaker taking tourists in all kinds of exotic places.”

He started teaching in 2000 after settling in Victoria for family of his own and taking an “indoor job” where he sought various ways to get kids outdoors. That’s brought groups to the seashore and cleaning up Anderson Hill Park.

“It’s been very exciting to marry those skills that were dormant for me with classroom teaching.

He spent two years getting re-certified in first aid and guiding to professional levels and designing the outdoor sciences program that incorporates into the standard curriculum.

“When students get outside it makes them more alive. It makes them more enthusiastic as learners. There’s something about having the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your face and to be questioning how nature works. It’s basic and it fulfills us as people,” Brown said. “I find these students are very enthusiastic to get outside.”

He takes his diverse class – representing every school clique from artsy to athletic – on local nature hikes and to spend time “harmonizing in nature.”

“I have never seen such an enthusiastic exuberant noisy group of kids as these guys. I can’t keep them down they are so excitable. They’re hands on but they’re quite social,” he said. “There’s a huge social and personality diversity in this classroom. They’re all coming together, this odd jumble of personalities.”

Brown’s at a loss to know if he has “this mix” of personalities each year and it’s just enhanced by the program or the program’s drawn such a diverse group. Either way, these students are keen.

“Unlike any other classroom I’ve ever taught before they actually applied to get into my classroom. That makes kids committed.”

The only prerequisite was that they were not intimidated by water and a $430 fee. Most of the costs are associated with the multiple paddling opportunities provided the students.

“We’ve kept it as low [cost] as possible. The way the program is organized is 14 kids go on the water at a time in a class of 28. Industry standard is five beginners to one professional,” Brown said. His updated certifications help allay those costs.

They’re developing team skills, paddling with a partner, collectively moving the fleet of kayaks, and maintaining gear. They’re learning to dress and act appropriately and to identify various sea life through things such as the World Fisheries Trust Sequaria touch tanks. Monterey is designated a Wild School through a partnership with WildBC, which helps fund programs such as the marine invertebrate studies run by Seaquaria.

“When they find a sea animal, if it’s squishy and soft they can deduce it can’t live in the intertidal zone,” Brown said.

They do a handful of sea kayak lessons at Willows Beach and learn to deal with capsizing at Elk Lake.

It all leads to the main event – an overnight kayaking expedition to Discover Island in June. By that time, Brown said, students will have developed ecological, physical and social responsibility skills for a safe, successful trip.

“We’re creating independent, problem-solving students that have a real hands-on understanding of their natural environment,” Brown said. “They’re kinaesthetic learners and my program really appeals to that.”