Unnatural Science

Kathryn Stevens has found that a river doesn't have to be pretty to make for an ideal lesson package.

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The oft-ignored, oversize storm drain known as the Los Angeles River is an odd place to find a teacher educating kids about science, but that’s only part of what Kathryn Stevens is doing there.

Since it’s within walking distance of Bell Cudahy K-8 Span School in California, where Stevens teaches 6th grade math and science, the river is a convenient place to introduce field science to students participating in the Reading the River project she created.
Since it’s within walking distance of Bell Cudahy K-8 Span School in California, where Stevens teaches 6th grade math and science, the river is a convenient place to introduce field science to students participating in the Reading the River project she created.
—Photo by Steve Goldstein

Since it’s within walking distance of Bell Cudahy K-8 Span School in California, where Stevens teaches 6th grade math and science, the river is a convenient place to introduce field science to students participating in the Reading the River project she created. The initiative, which includes 3rd, 6th, and 7th graders from her school and nearby Elizabeth Learning Center, has also used local expertise to further kids’ understanding of the river, 80 percent of which is lined with concrete. Hydrologists from the nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River have trained the program’s older students to take water and mud samples to help gauge urbanism’s impact on the waterway. They, in turn, have taught younger participants. “We can teach [the 3rd graders] about pH levels and whether it is safe to have animals live in the river or drink the water,” says 6th grader Stephanie Juanillo.

But science is only the launching pad for Stevens’ ultimate objectives. As her students record their observations of the river’s water quality, perform supplemental library research, and write chapters of a report called the Journal of River Students, they’re also building their English literacy skills. In this heavily Latino part of L.A., where about 85 percent of the students speak English as a second language, that’s not a trifling enterprise.

Neither is the conversation about the state of the river that Stevens is hoping to start in the community surrounding it. She wants her students’ research to be heard outside the classroom, particularly in discussions about building parks or creating open space around the waterway. “Being so close to the river, it affords us an opportunity to look at how rivers shape the land,” Stevens says. “I want the kids to be part of the dialogue.”

If 6th grader Santiago Rojas’ reaction is any measure, Stevens’ project may already be affecting the way future generations view the sluiceway. “It has shown us how important the river is to the neighborhood,” he says.

Vol. 16, Issue 06, Page 68

Published in Print: May 1, 2005, as Unnatural Science
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