SAN FRANCISCO — A new University of California Cooperative Extension program will teach Bay Area schoolchildren about water through hands-on activities. Funded by a $565,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant, the education program is part of a larger research project led by UC Davis Professor Isaya Kisekka, in partnership with multiple institutions and ecologists, to sustain irrigated agriculture while improving groundwater quantity and quality in the Southwest under a changing climate.
Water Wizards, a UCCE-led youth project, will include opportunities for students of color to meet with diverse scientists and imagine career possibilities in science, technology, education and math (STEM).
“As a grandparent myself, I’m proud to support the University of California Cooperative Extension’s Water Wizards program,” said Nate Miley, Alameda County Board of Supervisors vice president. “This exciting, hands-on learning experience teaches students the importance of water conservation while encouraging good stewardship of our environment.”
With Water Wizards, students will explore STEM solutions to water scarcity, water quality, and climate change. Students will also take a field trip to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center in Half Moon Bay for hands-on learning.
“I am incredibly ‘pumped’ for the Water Wizards program to inspire Bay Area BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] youth to pursue STEM through connections with water, food and the environment as well as receive mentorship from UC Cooperative Extension scientists,” said Mallika Arudi Nocco, an assistant professor of Cooperative Extension in soil-plant-water relations at UC Davis.
“We want to create an opportunity for urban kids in the Bay Area to experience different surroundings and literally get their feet wet,” said Frank McPherson, director of UC Cooperative Extension in the Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco. “We expect our hands-on, research-based, experiential learning approach to STEM will stimulate the interest of students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color.”
He envisions students from Hayward and Oakland dipping jars into a gurgling stream that flows through the rolling green hills and canyons of the 125-acre Elkus Ranch so educators can show them some of the organisms that live in the water as part of the natural ecosystem.
“We will collaborate with school districts, teachers and staff on an 11-week program designed to spark environmental learning, increase STEM knowledge and broaden students’ understanding of water, sustainable agriculture and conservation,” said McPherson.
Initially UC Cooperative Extension will be reaching out to Bay Area students with a focus on 7th through 10th graders in Alameda County schools with high populations of Black, Latinx and other students of color.
“Hayward Unified is excited to partner with UC ANR on the Water Wizards Youth Program to provide students with hands-on learning experiences that encourage inquiry, provide a chance to visit a local Water Education Center, and build environmental literacy for students to take action on water issues in the community,” said Nancy Wright, an elementary science teacher with the Alameda County Office of Education.
Theprogram is designed to provide experiential learning to BIPOC students and encourage them to build upon their own knowledge and skills, McPherson said. “We teach them that water is a valuable and limited resource so that they can make informed decisions,” he explained. “The program also includes a service-learning project that combines learning objectives with community service.”
To adapt Water Wizards for the Bay Area, McPherson said they are working with Marianne Bird, the UC 4-H youth development advisor who developed Water Wizards for Sacramento-area children.
Under Bird’s supervision, Capitol Corridor Water Wizards engages about 400 youth each year, predominately at schools in lower-income neighborhoods, where at least 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The Water Wizard participants learn about water cycles, watersheds, salinity, water density and water issues and begin to understand how people, plants and animals depend on water.
McPherson said the NIFA grant will support delivery of the pilot water education program with Alameda County schools. He is currently working to secure funding from other sources to expand Water Wizards to more schools in the Bay Area.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources brings the power of UC to all 58 California counties. Through research and Cooperative Extension in agriculture, natural resources, nutrition, economic and youth development, our mission is to improve the lives of all Californians. Learn more at ucanr.edu and support our work at donate.ucanr.edu.
–University of California Cooperative Extension