Discovering a passion for nature through scientific field studies at Paso Robles High School

Oct 4, 2019

October 4 is the application deadline for Paso Robles High School students. That’s if they want to take part in an upcoming trip to Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands. The trip is part of a Paso High program called the Fields Studies Collaborative. The FSC brings students to unique places to conduct real-world research and learn from the environment, and from each other.

KCBX News visited Paso Robles High School in May, to talk to students who had just returned from a trip to Joshua Tree National Park and were debriefing in a classroom. The trip was a botanic research trip in partnership with the National Park Service, where the students did research on Joshua Trees and compared it to data from the 1970s, to learn about any changes over time.

The Field Studies Collaborative is a course that’s outside the regular curriculum at Paso Robles High. The students who participate meet after school, during weekends and school breaks. And they go on field trips.

Mark DiMaggio leads the FSC.

“The Field Studies classes, they all involve some sort of data collection, so it's not like we go to the desert or to Santa Cruz Island or someplace and go on a fun camp out,” said DiMaggio. “I mean, we do sleep outdoors usually, but it's way more than a camping trip/vacation because the students are actually conducting scientific research and taking measurements.”

DiMaggio taught science classes at Paso Robles High School for 33 years—from 1986 through 2018. He is now retired as a teacher, but continues on at the school as the Field Studies Coordinator.

“For many years, starting in the early nineties, a colleague—who has also since retired—we started bringing kids up to Santa Cruz Island as part of the environmental club,” DiMaggio said. “And we just did volunteer work for the Nature Conservancy. That kind of morphed into more and more field science, rather than clearing trails and fire lanes. So became more scientific.”

DiMaggio said in the case of Santa Cruz Island, the group identifies plants and counts their frequency, density and distribution.

“In Joshua Tree, we're measuring the Joshua trees themselves, and we get probably 30 data points on each tree,” DiMaggio said. “Their height, their diameter, at chest height the number of live branches, if they have basal sprouts, on and on.”

The other major component of the program is each of the courses need to be linked to some agency—like the National Park Service, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary or NASA.

“Which gives us access to professional scientists in the field and to the work that they are doing,” DiMaggio said. “Which kind of elevates the standard of the whole program, to have that link.”

The Field Studies Collaborative has offered courses in field biology, taught on Santa Cruz Island and Joshua Tree National Park; astrometry taught at the Mount Wilson Observatory; and ethnic studies, taught in collaboration with the Ethnic Studies Department at San Luis Obispo’s Cal Poly.

Back in May, KCBX News asked the students who completed the Joshua Tree course what they got out of it. They learned how to conduct rigorous research, sure, but they also learned about themselves, said sophomore Sophia Hammond.

“I think the biggest lesson I learned out there was how to be adaptable, and more go with the flow,” Hammond said. “Because I tend to be a very uptight kind of person.”

Cheyanne Holliday says on a trip like that, the students really bond.

“That's what happens when you don't have your phone or social media or anything for five days, and you're kind of just surrounded by strangers, almost,” Holliday said. “But you get to know them so fast, and I just learned to trust everyone here so quickly.”

DiMaggio said he wants more people to know about the Field Studies Collaborative because it’s a thriving program which he thinks does kids a world of good.

“It's just so powerful and meaningful for students who participate in these courses that we do,” DiMaggio said. “That's that's really my passion—to get kids outdoors and get them excited about about being outside, and doing science outside, and then developing a sense of love and stewardship for wild places.”

Back in the Paso High classroom, students who still had a year or two to go at the high school vowed to continue participating in the FSC, as they finished watching the video of themselves from the recent trip.

[audio from a video the students made during the trip; student speaking to the camera]

“My favorite part from today was just the camaraderie with everybody. When we all climbed that peak, we all made it through together, and made sure that all of us made it through together. And I went into this thinking that maybe, you know, I would just be by myself, and just make it through, maybe talk to some people, but I, after one day, am so much closer to these people than I thought I would ever be.”