It’s just after 8 in the morning, and Cate School’s Science Department chair, Bob Bonning, is talking about the food web — yes, the food web — with a class of Cate seniors.
“Did you see any producers from the rocky shore?” Bonning asks.
He’s prodding the students in his winter elective “Coastal California” to reflect on a recent trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Divided into groups, they’re sharing their multimedia projects on the dietary interactions of the varied ecosystems they’ve observed, including food producers and consumers in sandy and rocky shores, kelp forests and open ocean environments. California’s 1,000 mile-plus shoreline, Bonning points out in his characteristic deadpan voice, is not the worst place to teach a class about the coast.
“Where we are gives us access to stuff that is flat-out unique,” he says. “It presents all sorts of opportunities to take advantage of locations right in our backyard.”
For the purposes of the course, that backyard stretches from Long Beach to the Carpinteria Bluffs and up to the elephant seal preserve at Piedras Blancas beach — and even to Monterey Bay.
Each one of those places is a destination for some late-winter field-tripping outside regular time spent in the classroom. One of several newly-designed trimester offerings at Cate, this 12-week course is honing in on the geological and oceanographic processes that have shaped California’s coast, creating its diverse and rich chain of biological communities. The students are also examining the human impact on the state’s defining coastline.
Santa Barbara resident and Cate senior Madison Snider has grown up in California and appreciates the opportunity to understand her environment more fully.
“I’ve been looking at some of the things we’re discussing in this class, like wave cut terraces and cobble beaches, for my whole life,” she said. “Now I understand why they’re here and how they’ll look in the future.”
Yet Carpinteria resident Bonning, a 37-year veteran at Cate, is clear that the ultimate goal of his curriculum is not just to know California better.
“We’re really using the marine systems here as a vehicle to see patterns on a global scale,” he said. “What we study in this class is connected to the rest of the planet.”
Several years ago, Cate began moving away from the programmatic requirements of Advanced Placement (AP) courses, preferring instead to offer experiences that better serve the interests of Cate’s students and faculty. Among the results of this initiative is a set of new trimester and year-long electives, at both the core and advanced levels, that has reshaped the opportunities of every Cate student in the upper grades. During the 2012-13 academic year these new courses are offered alongside the traditional AP courses in most departments — the “Coastal California” class is just one example. Others include an investigation of 20th-century trends in Spanish literature, film and art, a genetics class, and a sports medicine class.
In Bonning’s class, talk about the big picture is set aside temporarily for some practical advice about the final field trip, which involves taking shovels to the Carpinteria shoreline to sample and then describe a typical sandy beach biological community. Bonning ends the morning class with a simple admonition: “Wear real shoes. You’re going to dig, and you’re going to get your feet wet!”
— Sarah Kidwell represents Cate School.