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A Sea Change from Chalkboards and Textbooks: Questions for Jay Vavra

Saturday, June 17, 2006 | Do you wonder which part of San Diego Bay has the most acorn barnacles? How much deeper high tide is than low tide? The diet or reproductive habits of a belted kingfisher?

Ask an 11th grader in one of Jay Vavra’s biotechnology classes at the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High in Point Loma.

Vavra and other instructors oversaw the making of “Perspectives of San Diego Bay: A Field Guide,” which 56 high school students researched, wrote and designed in four months. Included in the glossy, 226-page guide are a myriad of maps, charts and articles detailing everything about San Diego Bay, from the distribution of oysters to the homeless population at Spanish Landing.

voiceofsandiego.org sat down with the lifelong San Diegan, near the Navy Boat Channel, just a stroll from the school, to find out how he managed to steer students’ attention away from an X-Box or “Us Weekly” to take on the rigors of field research.

Teaching high school can often be like herding cats. How did you get teenagers to write a book?

First we take visits out here to get them thinking about the issues in the bay. After kind of exploring different topics, we used “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” (by John Steinbeck) as a model, so it’s both humanities and biology driven, and then discussed doing a somewhat nontraditional field guide to look at the creatures and then look at ourselves within the creatures. We used that as a premise for our study. Then we talked to them about possibilities about how they could study the creatures and write it up in that format.

And it only took four months to put together this book?

It was a tremendous amount of organization. We do a lot of work in groups, because that’s the real world dynamics to do science or in nearly any other career, you’re going to work with others. The difficulty, the challenge is to have them work as a collective unit.

All students are authors, and so to find all different assignments for them that pique their interest, but to also find places that bring out their individual skill and passion – things like sketching, Web database programs and data analysis – is the challenge.

How do you get these students motivated to work on projects that are so academic and sometimes tedious when their minds could often be on cool cars or video games?

With the school itself, [its] design principles focus on projects like this project, and so they’re somewhat indoctrinated. The goal, and it’s very effective, is to encourage their learning rather than just working out of a textbook or doing traditional homework assignments, (and) that they feel their work is meaningful.

Generally, there is a little more motivation if they know that their work is going to be used and looked at and read by other people and sold in the bookstore and purchased. That means its something significant if somebody is buying your work, that the essay you write is going far beyond the teacher’s filing cabinet. A lot of students realize that.

How much of the finished product is the actual work of students?

It’s completely the work of students. The amount of revision and rewrites is incredible in such a project. A lot of them, they don’t realize early on the quality of work that is needed to publish something, and the polish comes from the student editors to coordinate and refine the writing, and also by teachers. The editors added some contribution, but it’s really minimal. It was helpful, but in the big scheme it was really minimal to what the students did for the book.

What type of role do you see this book playing in the local community or the world of academia?

We’re using this as a model for integrating subject matter at high schools. The first book that we did (“The Two Sides of The Bay Channel: A Field Guide”) was purchased by the community college district for reference for teachers as a model for integrating subject matter. And there’s a group called Pisces – they purchased the book for elementary school science teachers – so it’s great to have something span that range of education.

Besides having it aesthetically pleasing and available for the public, is to provide it for the policy makers and people who set up regulations on development issues on San Diego Bay. We’re involved with the (California) Department of Fish and Game, the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service, the port and about six different other agencies, the Navy being included.

If there is an alteration in the bay, this is an important baseline measurement that policy makers could use to assess what environmental damage or change has occurred by having such a record of the marine life that exist along the shores of San Diego Bay, which I think the students have surveyed and analyzed very well.

A good example is the Exxon Valdez (oil spill off the Alaskan coast in 1989). When that spill occurred, there was little record of the existing marine life on the shore up there. So they had a difficult time assessing the damage and then deciding how much these companies involved should pay to clean up and bring it back to what it was.

The next book, “The Usage of San Diego Bay,” details some of the many usages of the bay over time. Give us some history of the bay. What has it been used for?

Each year we use a literary piece that crosses disciplines as a premise for the book, and this year students are reading “Guns, Germs and Steel” (by Jared Diamond). The basic idea of that book is sort of how civilizations succeeded over others on the resources they had available or the local geography. So, San Diego Bay at one time had an abundance of resources to those that lived here and also has a unique geography that has allowed the city to thrive. A lot of that is due to this wonderful bay that we have.

So we’ve gone back, looking at the beginnings when the bay was a simple food source and the Native Americans that foraged on the bay. And there are many different stories that people of San Diego don’t know about. The gunpowder factory that existed down in the south bay employed 1,500 people starting in 1916 and had $2 million put into it. They harvested giant kelp around the clock in order to get enough gunpowder for the allies to fight in World War I. The industry collapsed at the end of World War I, but others such as the tuna fisheries – one of the most famous industries of San Diego – we look at how industry changed over time.

A big part of this book is looking at the restoration that has gone on, where once we had a gunpowder factory we now have the wonderful Chula Vista Nature Center that is a refuge for many birds and salt marsh plants and others such as … the white sea bass.

You worked with the humanities and math teachers on this book. Is the interdisciplinary nature of the project required at High Tech High or did you have the freedom to dream up this idea?

We have tremendous freedom, and that’s why I’m here. I kind of kid around, it’s not the [San Diego Unified School District’s] Blueprint for Student Success but it’s the blue ribbon for success.

Vavra and the High Tech High field guide team will be signing copies of “Perspectives” on Saturday at the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.

– Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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