For over 25 years, John Pearse taught students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, about marine life along the shore of the Central Coast through hands-on activities. Now the UCSC professor emeritus of biology is bringing his expertise and love of science to high school students through the Seymour Intertidal Monitoring Program (SIMP), an educational program he founded in 2000. While learning about marine organisms, the students help track changes in the abundance of key species at different sites in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

"High school students are great because there's always a ready supply," Pearse said. "It's important to introduce people at a young age to the diversity on this coast, to the beauty of it all."

SIMP has its roots in a survey of the Central Coast carried out by Pearse and other UCSC scientists and students in 1971-73. At 10 different sites, some heavily impacted by human activities and some pristine, they counted how many individuals of common species they could find in the intertidal zone, the strip of beach that is underwater when the tide comes in and exposed to air when the tide goes out. The species counted included anemones, surfgrass, and mussels.

The 1970s survey was a response to the 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. UCSC researchers wanted a record of the species in case something catastrophic happened in Monterey Bay.

Pearse continued to monitor intertidal species with his classes through the mid-1990s, although at fewer sites and less frequently. In 1996-97, UCSC students repeated the 1970s survey to determine what changes had occurred, and found more organisms and a greater diversity of species. Pearse wanted the monitoring to continue after his retirement, so he applied for and got a grant from the California Sea Grant program to create an educational program for teens, which became SIMP.

Students in the SIMP program first learn about the intertidal zone and the monitoring techniques they will use. UCSC's Seymour Marine Discovery Center, which has run the program for the past two years, offers an Introduction to Intertidal Monitoring course for high school students. The students then go to the beach and methodically count the organisms they find. As they watch hermit crabs and sea stars climb over the rocky intertidal zone, the teens get their first taste of science in the field.

"We wanted students to be involved in something where they can get meaningful data and make a difference," said Kevin Keedy, youth programs manager at the Seymour Center. "We've taken a research program and made it into a workable educational program."

The students go to one of four sites with rocky intertidal zones: Natural Bridges State Beach, Soquel Point, Almar Street, and Point Pinos. At each site, a line is placed across the intertidal zone to the water. The students count the number of individuals of various species in evenly spaced increments along the line. If global warming increases the sea level, the organisms will move up the beach, and the students' counts will reflect that movement.

Students also count two conspicuous species, owl limpets and sea stars, within a specific area of the intertidal zone. Owl limpets are easy to see and in danger from human harvesting. Sea stars are an important predator in intertidal systems, and are also very sensitive to environmental change.

"If there are lots of sea stars, then there's lots to eat and the system is healthy," Pearse said.

SIMP currently includes students from Harbor High School in Santa Cruz, Aptos High School, Watsonville High School, and Monterey Academy of Ocean Sciences. The Santa Cruz Homeschool Program and volunteers from Save Our Shores are also involved.

The program's web site (http://simp.ucsc.edu) includes all educational materials necessary to prepare for and perform a count, from creature descriptions to data sheets. Within the next year, the web site will become interactive: Students will be able to enter and graph their data, then compare it to the counts done by other groups.

Eventually participants will be able to compare their data to counts from southern California and Washington. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) is in the process of incorporating SIMP into a broader sanctuary education program.

"Getting the program off the ground has been very rewarding, and we look forward to working with the sanctuary to expand it," Keedy said.

The five national marine sanctuaries on the West Coast have applied for a grant to link all their monitoring efforts. If they receive the funding, the sanctuaries will sponsor teacher-training workshops, and students will have access to data from all of the sanctuaries.

"We're very excited about integrating SIMP into the sanctuary," said Dawn Hayes, education outreach coordinator at MBNMS. "It allows us to maintain the program but also grow it out."

The MBNMS also plans to incorporate SIMP into its Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network (SIMoN), which involves professional researchers from UCSC and other institutions studying all aspects of the sanctuary. Hayes wants to create more partnerships between researchers and teachers so students can get involved in other research projects such as water-quality monitoring.

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Editor's note: Reporters may contact John Pearse at (831) 459-2455 or pearse@biology.ucsc.edu.

Images can be downloaded from the web at http://www.ucsc.edu/news_events/download/.