Learning science in the field … or rain forest

Since 1999, students at Bishop O’Dowd High School have been found tracking bats in Belize, giant tortoises in the Galapagos, and bison and elk in Yellowstone National Park. Some of O’Dowd’s most inspired science learning occurs in the field — an essential experience for budding scientists. Up to eight times a year, the faculty plan and escort student research trips to explore diverse ecosystems, including Costa Rica and Yosemite, as well. 

Trips are attended by students from all four grades who have been recommended by their science teachers. A passion for the subject is required, because participants actually conduct and contribute to experiments for research personnel at partner organizations in each location. 

Working with nonprofits like the National Park Service and Ecology Project International, the  student groups collect data, run experiments, and analyze their findings. 

“We’re not only looking at our own collected data, but what has been collected previously, to see what the trends and variables are,” said Science Department Chair Tim Newman, who has taught at O’Dowd for more than 20 years. 

O’Dowd science students in Costa Rica gather around the replica of a leatherback turtle they created in the sand. The exercise helped them understand the turtle’s shape and dimensions. Credit: Bishop O’Dowd High School

Gabriela Gonzalez ’22 participated in a trip to Costa Rica last April, learning about leatherback turtles and their egg-laying process. 

“One thing that surprised me was how much of an impact we actually have on the turtles,” Gonzalez said. “We live in a society where we don’t really think about how our actions affect other animals, but learning about the great impact of our unconscious decisions was a huge eye-opener.” She’s considering an academic and career path that combines math and biology.

A central element of O’Dowd’s mission is kinship with creation, which means that O’Dowd’s science program is rooted in the ethics of environmentalism. 

“In Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical, Laudato sì’, we are called to protect the natural environment and intentionally consider our obligations to future generations,” Newman said. “That ethos is core to our research in the field with these organisms, when we’re studying their ecosystems.”

The school’s state-of-the-art Center for Environmental Studies and its 4-acre “Living Lab” — an outdoor classroom, native plant community, certified wildlife habitat, and sustainable garden —  sow the seeds for the next generation of environmental and sustainability leaders.

O’Dowd’s robust science program uses Next Generation Science Standards to engage students in creative projects that master crosscutting concepts in physical science, life science, earth and space science, and engineering design. So thorough is the curriculum that, by the end of 10th grade, every O’Dowd student has completed the science requirement for admission to the UCs. 

O’Dowd students learn to use telemetry equipment to track herds of elk, bison and bighorn sheep in Greater Yellowstone.  Credit: Bishop O’Dowd High School

Lucien Regnier ’23 went to Montana last June, where his group collected data about ungulates including bison, elk, sheep and pronghorns. Using fecal samples, they were able to identify the animals’ genders and ages. 

“It felt very fulfilling because the data we collected was used by scientists who needed these statistics in order to do their research,” Regnier said. “I learned how much there is I don’t yet know about the environment, how much there still is to learn.” Regnier plans to go into civil engineering.

In addition to accompanying students on many of these research missions, Newman surveys and tracks metrics to learn how effective the trips are. A 2018 survey of alumni showed that, of 141 respondents, 91% said the trip impacted their interest in science and 87% said the trip impacted their care and concern for the environment. Furthermore, 43% were affected in their choices of college majors or careers. 

“Even students who weren’t planning to pursue science said the trips deeply affected how they view the world,” Newman said. “That’s the purpose of these immersive science trips — to give students a broader perspective.”

Before they participate in a research trip, Newman said, students don’t truly comprehend how big an impact they can make. But gradually, as they interact with nature and see results of their work, they begin to understand the human-wildlife interface. He recalls the most recent trip to Yellowstone, where they were hit by a flood while camping along the river.

“Even in the middle of a disaster, the students were thinking about their research,” Newman reported. “They were asking, how can we check on the animals? What kinds of information do we have to work with?”

Newman and his fellow science faculty said they see tangible growth in their students while in the field, but also once they’ve returned home. Students might want to work in the Living Lab or join O’Dowd’s EcoLeaders or sign up for an advanced placement science course. 

“They just want to get out there and do something,” Newman said. “The impact of O’Dowd’s science trips is very long-lasting.”

O’Dowd students on a science research trip to Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Bishop O’Dowd High School

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