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Source to Sea: Learning with the L.A. River

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Marsh Park snake and kids by Friends of the L.A. River
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Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) is a non-profit organization founded in 1986 to protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat through inclusive planning, education and wise stewardship. This weekly column will support our efforts toward a swimmable, fishable, boatable Los Angeles River.

Photo by Eloisa Martinez
Photo by Eloisa Martinez

Historically, the Los Angeles River played a part in the daily lives of those who lived here. It sustained life for the Tongva and European explorers, and up until the early 20th century, it was the main source of water for those living in Los Angeles. But ask most modern Angelenos what they know about the Los Angeles River and its surrounding watershed, and you'll most likely get a sea of blank stares. Yet, the River still cuts through the heart of Los Angeles and numerous other cities along its 52-mile course to the ocean. And it still has potential to play a major role in our daily lives -- the L.A. River offers space for education and parks for recreation.

In January, Friends of the Los Angeles River, through a generous grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation, began a pilot educational program called Los Angeles River: Source to Sea. The program focused on helping 4th-6th grade students understand their role in the Los Angeles River watershed. With that in mind, FoLAR teamed up with Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) and the Santa Ana Watershed Association to show teachers working in schools near the L.A. River how to incorporate interactive learning activities about the river into science, language arts, and even math lessons for their students. Each teacher received two curriculum books -- one from Project WET, with hundreds of lessons about water and watersheds, and Watershed Wonders, created by FoLAR in conjunction with Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which focuses on the Los Angeles River Watershed.
 

Many teachers had already implemented some of these hands-on lessons into their classrooms by the time I came to the schools in March and April. I brought with me a large watershed model. Students loved seeing how water flows through the mountains, into the city, and finally into the ocean, as we used a spray bottle to imitate rain. I saw wide eyed 4th graders impressed as we watched the water take down "pesticides","soil", and "trash," using Kool-Aid, hot chocolate powder, and oats on our mini city. It was the first time many students grasped the concept that what they do at home, affects the L.A. River, and eventually the ocean.

Watershed Model | Photo by Doug Simpson
Watershed Model | Photo by Doug Simpson

A final visit to Marsh Park allowed the students to see their watershed working in the real world. From here, we explored all the different kinds of wildlife the river has to offer. We witnessed an egret standing so still; a fish swimming in the water seen from the bike trail above; we could even see a pair of black-necked stilts guarding a rock in the middle of the channel. Every day they sat there, and we hoped they were guarding their nest. Of course, with 60 kids outside, there had to be something to break the peaceful silence of the calling birds. That something was learning -- loud learning to be more accurate. "Rock, paper, scissor, GO!...rock, paper, scissor, GO!...rock, paper, scissor, GO!"

If you were anywhere near Elysian Valley on a May morning this spring, you might have heard the sound of children's voices happily realizing that paper beats rock (but, I wouldn't be surprised if you heard the frustration upon losing, as well). Why the excitement during such a simple game? Through the game, each student became a macroinvertebrate living in the L.A. River. The only way for the student invertebrates to survive was to play a game of rock, paper, scissor at each stage in the life-cycle of, for example, a mayfly. If you won the game as an egg, you could continue on through the cycle until finally reaching mayfly adulthood. Why a mayfly? Well, mayflies act as an indicator species of healthy water quality. They are sensitive to contaminants and cannot survive except under certain conditions in the L.A. River. But, we are happy to report, there are many mayflies near Marsh Park. Using samples from the L.A. River, students examined many macroinvertebrates, including mayflies, with magnifiers, as they sketched and wrote about their findings in science journals.

Los Angeles River: Source to Sea gave both teachers and students an understanding of how to use the river for fun learning and recreation activities. And, as FoLAR expands the program in the coming years, it will continue to give new insight to a greater number of students, teachers, and communities. Eventually, we will see the L.A. River in the every day lives of Angelenos, just as it has always been before us.

Kari and students at Marsh Park | Photo by Eloisa Martinez
Kari and students at Marsh Park | Photo by Eloisa Martinez

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