Marsh on the move: bringing environmental education into the classroom

By Josie Storm, Christine Parisek, Brian Williamshen, Caroline Newell, Sarah Yarnell, Kim Luke, Jake Shab, and Erin Tracy

This spring, a group of researchers and students at the Center for Watershed Sciences (“Watershed”) organized a community engagement event at a local high school, with the help of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Committee. At Watershed, we recognize a tremendous value in opportunities that not only inspire youth to forge meaningful connections with their local watershed, but also enable greater access to outdoor experiences. Initiatives like these have the potential to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world, especially in the coming generations. We value experiential learning, especially when it enhances each individual’s connections and interactions with nature. These experiences are known to have numerous benefits to health and well-being, and have the potential to play a pivotal role in nurturing lifelong positive relationships with the environment (Miller 2005; Soga and Gaston 2016).

We hoped this outreach effort would inspire students to become more curious about their local watershed. Many participants had never visited their local marsh, Suisun Marsh, before, nor were aware they could visit the marsh to view tule elk, or realized how many birds live and rely on the marsh. There are over 60,000 birds that use the marsh, with over fifty different bird species alone (Moyle et al. 2014). Suisun Marsh is the second largest estuarine marsh on the west coast of North America (Mount and Kimmerer 2022), and it is a migratory corridor for many fishes, including the native Chinook salmon, Sacramento splittail, and prickly sculpin, and non-native striped bass, white catfish, Mississippi silverside, and various shad species (O’Rear and Moyle 2019). Indeed, in partnership with the California Department of Water Resources, Watershed researchers have been sampling and monitoring fish populations in the marsh since the 1980s (O’Rear et al. 2021).

Caroline Newell teaching students how to cast a fishing rod

On May 25th and 26th 2023, we visited Fairfield High School to bring nature into the classroom and connect students with their local marsh. We designed the event similar to one we hosted in 2022. We went to Fairfield High School to show students how to assess water quality in the marsh, as well as some tips and tricks for birding and fishing in the marsh. With increasing urbanization, and as opportunities for people (especially youth) to connect with nature decrease (Pyle 1993; Miller 2005; Hartig et al. 2014; Soga & Gaston 2016; Skar et al. 2016; California Coastal Conservancy 2017), it is important to show how nearby places like Suisun Marsh generate value for communities. By bringing the marsh to the classroom, we hoped to show what kinds of opportunities the marsh could offer, both for fun as well as potential career paths.

Dr. Sarah Yarnell and students holding up a seine net.

Over two days at Fairfield High School, our team discussed with students topics related to the biodiversity and history of Suisun Marsh, careers in environmental field work, outdoor recreation, and methods for catching fish, identifying birds, and measuring water quality for ecological research. Throughout the event, the team talked about their own research work and led hands-on activities for students in Ms. Handa’s classes, ranging from freshman to seniors in advanced-placement (AP). Here, we hoped to inspire interest and curiosity about the flora and fauna that made up the marsh just fifteen minutes away from their school. In addition, the class space became an “open house” at the student’s lunch hour, so that students not in Ms. Handa’s class were also able to come in and explore plant and animal specimens generously provided by the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology.

Students crowd around Elsie Platzer to touch and look at a fish.

On day one, after some background on the marsh and showing a video that presents some Watershed field sampling techniques in action, students were split into groups to engage in different activities. Caroline Newell, a graduate student at Watershed, led a hands-on activity where she taught students how to use fishing rods (some of which were raffled off for students to take home as prizes) and cast weights into various targets outside the classroom. Although the majority of students had little to no experience with a rod and reel, by the end of the activity they were casting lines all around the lawn outside.

Dr. Sarah Yarnell, a senior researcher at Watershed, also held activities outside and showed students different methods in the scientific collection of fishes, including cloverleaf and minnow traps, and demonstrated using a seine net with help of the students. Employing a PIT tag reader (similar to the instrument used to check a pet’s microchip), Dr. Yarnell illustrated how researchers can track telemetered fish and explained the importance of it.

Inside the classroom, graduate students Elsie Platzer and Erin Tracy showed students fish and invertebrates found in the marsh. There were several species of fish – tule perch, splittail, striped bass, prickly sculpin, and starry flounder – to display the diversity of shapes and life history strategies that fish use to make a living in the marsh. Elsie and Erin answered any questions students had and further explained the biodiversity of the marsh. An often asked question was, “Why is the water so murky?” to which they learned how water clarity changes with decaying and living plants and suspended particles in the water. Students were engaged with concepts of how fish were adapted to the ecosystem that they lived in.

A lucky student wins a fishing pole from the raffle.

On day two, a new cast of Watershed-ers visited the classroom to share their areas of expertise. Four graduate students – Caroline Newell, Kim Luke, Lynette Williams, and Brian Williamshen – and one CDFW employee and Watershed alumnus, Dr. Dylan Stompe, again divided the class for two different hands-on learning stations.

One station was focused on water quality and marsh plants. Students measured different parameters, like salinity, dissolved oxygen, and heavy metal concentrations using an electronic probe and simple color-changing test strips. They also learned how different physical processes, like river flow, can change aspects of the water and how living organisms, like plants and bacteria, change water chemistry and quality. Dylan and Brian showed different plants that are submerged in, emerge from, or live near water, and how they are adapted for survival. Students had the opportunity to touch, visually inspect, smell, and taste the different plant species.

The second station was a crash course in birding (bird watching). Students went outside and first learned how to use binoculars, then applied that skill to play a game of “bird bingo” where students had to identify pictures of birds the volunteers had pasted on walls around the quad. Each student was given a Birds of Suisun guide donated by the San Joaquin Audubon Society to help identify the bird photos, and were encouraged to keep the guides after the activity to continue birding. Throughout the activity Lynette, Caroline, and Kim taught the students about bird migrations and the importance of Suisun Marsh to many different species.

At the end of each class period during the 2-day event, the team raffled away fishing rods, waterproof dry-bags, binoculars, and neck gaiters, giving the lucky winners some tools to help them get started in appreciating and enjoying the outdoors.

Despite being the second largest estuary on the west coast of North America (Mount and Kimmerer 2022), Suisun Marsh is not well known to many, and is often seemingly inaccessible to students in the adjacent city of Fairfield – despite being only ~15 minutes away. We hope we accomplished our goal of exciting students about their local resources and giving them some basic knowledge on outdoor recreation and marsh ecology. If we were able to inspire just a single student, the work to put on this event was well worth it.

“My students enjoyed learning about the history of the marsh and exploring various marsh activities. They were able to see several species of aquatic life for improved understanding of ecological structure. They loved the outside hands-on activities which allowed them to learn fishing and birding skills. These experiences were valuable for students to make personal connections with class curriculum and the important ecosystems that surround them. Some students were inspired to explore natural spaces on their own and others wanted to find volunteer and internship opportunities working in environmental sciences. This was fantastic!” – Heather Handa, Fairfield High School, California

Josie Storm is an Undergraduate Student at UC Davis and Student Assistant at the Center for Watershed Sciences. Christine Parisek is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate Group in Ecology at UC Davis and a Science Communications Fellow at the Center for Watershed Sciences. Brian Williamshen is a Ph.D. Student in the Graduate Group in Ecology at UC Davis. Caroline Newell is a Masters Student in the Graduate Group in Ecology at UC Davis. Sarah Yarnell is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences. Kim Luke is a Masters Student the Animal Biology Graduate Group at UC Davis. Jake Shab is an Undergraduate Student at UC Davis and Student Assistant at the Center for Watershed Sciences. Erin Tracy is a Ph.D. Student in the Animal Biology Graduate Group at UC Davis.

A word cloud illustrating the frequency of key terms used in post- experience student feedback responses. Larger font indicates words used in higher frequency in the responses.
Generated using

Further Reading (mostly related to the marsh):

Durand, J. 2021. A Recorded Conversation with Dr. Peter B. Moyle.

Hobbs, J. and P. Moyle. 2018. Will Delta Smelt Have a Happy New Year?

Manfree, A., and P. Moyle. 2014. Planning for the inevitable at Suisun Marsh.

Mount, J. and W. Kimmerer. 2022. The Largest Estuary on the West Coast of North America.

Moyle, P. 2020. Eating Delta Smelt., P.B., A.D. Manfree, and P.L. Fiedler. 2014. Suisun Marsh: Ecological History and Possible Futures. University of California Press.

Moyle, P., D. Stompe, and J. Durand. 2020. Is the Sacramento Splittail an Endangered Species?

O’Rear, T., and P. Moyle. 2019. Remarkable Suisun Marsh: a bright spot for fish in the San Francisco Estuary.

O’Rear, T., J. Durand, and P. Moyle. 2021. Suisun Marsh fishes in 2020.

Rypel, A.L. 2021. Sometimes, studying the variation is the interesting thing

Stompe, D.K., P. Moyle, A. Kruger, and J. Durand. 2020. Fish surveys in the estuary: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

About Andrew Rypel

Andrew L. Rypel is a Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.
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2 Responses to Marsh on the move: bringing environmental education into the classroom

  1. Gladys E Bustos says:

    Kids should be exposed to water, epa, agriculture solutions etc

  2. Tom Lang says:

    Were the fish (tule perch, splittail, striped bass, prickly sculpin, and starry flounder) Elsie Platzer and Erin Tracy showed students live in aquaria or taxidermy? The question regarding the murky water made me wonder.

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