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Students Board Floating Classroom for Deeper Learning Experience

Santa Barbara Middle School ninth-graders turn explorers for three days around the Channel Islands

Anytime I’m able to venture away from Santa Barbara — for any distance, really — I return home appreciating the specialness of the area. It’s certainly true in terms of our varied geographical features: mountains, coastline and ocean.

But across the Santa Barbara Channel, we have something truly special — our own mini version of the Galapagos Islands lying right offshore. With their unique collection of distinct flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world, the northern Channel Islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel — even remote Santa Barbara Island — offer amazing educational opportunities for a variety of ages. If you can’t make it to Ecuador, try the local version. You won’t be disappointed.

Tapping into these offshore treasures recently was the ninth-grade class of Santa Barbara Middle School. For three days aboard the Conception out of the Santa Barbara Harbor, 28 students and eight staff members got a taste of the Jacques Cousteau lifestyle while pursuing their studies.

Headmaster Brian McWilliams said the school has even “written our own textbook titled Channel Islands Expedition Reader, which links many subjects from environmental science, history, politics and economics with five main topics, including Chumash history, the island fox, marine debris, local/global fisheries and kelp forest biology.”

Studying about such subjects while at the islands and participating in hands-on learning in the natural environment via the support of a “floating classroom” makes for a deeper learning experience most students will never forget.

The ninth-graders had many opportunities to hone their inquiry, research and collaboration skills. On the first day, they made the most out of hiking on San Miguel Island up to the National Park Service ranger station headquarters, where they learned about the captive breeding program of the island fox.

After a day of learning, some students spent their free time diving off the boat.
After a day of learning, some students spent their free time diving off the boat. (Santa Barbara Middle School photo)

After visiting Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo’s grave monument overlooking Cuyler Harbor and discussing the history of Spanish exploration, the students ended their day snorkeling and diving off the boat.

Back aboard the Conception during transit time to Santa Rosa Island, the students held discussions, presented reports and shared their observations. For some, the next morning came even earlier if they chose to play in a few waves breaking on an isolated beach. For the second day, the floating classroom anchored off the same beach the school has visited the past three years to document and remove the trash — or marine debris — that washes up. Their observations this time around? There was less trash this year.

Finishing off their third and final day along Santa Cruz Island, everyone took turns kayaking deep into Painted Cave. Topping off the day were in-the-water fish counts and identification as well as marine mammal observations.

In line with the general learning philosophy of Santa Barbara Middle School, “our students immerse themselves in having fun, absorbing info, asking questions, and then they come away with a deeper appreciation of place and environment,” McWilliams said. That’s making the most out of traveling and learning in your own backyard.

Ecuador might sound more exotic, and the Galapagos are tops in the island travel industry for nature-based opportunities — but for these younger explorers, it was all local with a floating classroom.

— Photojournalist Lori Rafferty shows her appreciation for Santa Barbara by pursuing her love of water sports, the backcountry and all things in between. She is also a volunteer wilderness ranger with Los Padres National Forest.

The students pose for a group photo before kayaking into Painted Cave.
The students pose for a group photo before kayaking into Painted Cave. (Santa Barbara Middle School photo)

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