How a Fourth Grade Teacher Engaged Students in Science: A Year of Marine Science Investigation


Ana Thomas, Fourth Grade Teacher at Peralta Elementary, in Oakland, California, understands the difference a day exploring science in the field makes in the lives of students. Last spring, we received an email from Ana, reading:

"My students are fired up about science and thankful for their learning opportunities. Sending appreciation to the institutions and educators that inspired deeper research. This video celebrates field study, peer education, and expository writing. Thank you for supporting marine science!"

After viewing her student's fantastic appreciation video, and learning more about the depth to which her students took their investigation, we wanted to chat with Ana to learn more! Ana shared with us how she has partnered with environmental education providers like Marine Science Institute (MSI), supports Three Dimensional Learning of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in her classroom and the field, overcomes challenges and champions environmental literacy in her teaching practice. Watch her students' video, and read the interview to learn how this teacher is engaging her students in science in such an upfront and meaningful way.


WATCH: The Rocky Shore Appreciation Video 2018 to learn more from 2017-18 Peralta Elementary Fourth Graders.


A Year of Marine Science Investigation

An Interview with Ana Thomas, Peralta Elementary Fourth Grade Teacher

Interview recorded by Naomi Deal, Marine Science Institute Education Marketing Manager


How did you find out about the Marine Science Institute (MSI)?

In the past, I had brought students to Santa Cruz on the Jack O'Neill Sea Odyssey and loved the program because it got students outside, researching on the water. However, it became difficult for us to travel all the way to Santa Cruz from Oakland, so I took it upon myself to research other field trips that offered similar experiences, closer to us. So, I did a google search, and found MSI, got scholarships, and have been participating every year since.


Why marine science as the topic of your investigation for the entire school year?

Marine sciences invite students to look at the world around them. The Bay is right here and often overlooked. It's so rewarding to see student's world open up as they learn just how much more life is out there from plankton to sea otters, seals, and so much more.


What impact have you noticed in your students before, during and after participating in MSI school programs?

I fell in love with research projects for students because I've noticed the dynamic patterns in which students benefit from learning about science in the field. Specifically, I've seen a significant impact on English Language Learners and shyer students. After the boat trip, I notice that they become more vocal, eager to express their ideas and elaborate their scientific understandings. Also, the trip serves as a point of reference for them to better communicate their knowledge. Besides just me, other teachers, including the principal of our school, notice these patterns of change in students. These experiences also inspire student's career choices, as I have students express in writing that they want to become Marine Biologists. In all, students are simply blown away when they realize how much life is in the Bay. At times, communicating this impact to administrators can be difficult, but when kids actually touch and interact with REAL life-forms, they become engaged in a very powerful way. Not only that but what I love about these hands-on experiences is that it builds equity among children from various backgrounds, languages, and abilities—creating space where all my students can engage and learn together.


How did you consider the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) during the field experiences and in the classroom?

When I first learned about NGSS, I was excited to adopt the standards because I thought it would require that students take more field trips, as there is so much emphasis on real-life experiences with phenomena. Going out in the field does inspire students to investigate naturally, and one important question and skill I work on with students is “How can we make an experiment happen?” To do this, teachers need support from institutions like MSI and other providers. The idea of utilizing the outdoors as a lab was something I wanted to explore, and this became a learning goal I created for myself as a teacher: I wanted to improve my ability to teach students outside. It was a challenge, but I definitely looked to other organizations for support. Some schools don’t even have the scientific equipment and resources to facilitate an outdoor lab, so we really do need help to provide this experience to students.


What are some examples of how you connect MSI school programs and outdoor experiences with NGSS?

There are strong NGSS connections with the Life Science Disciplinary Core Idea, From molecules to organisms: Structures and processes where students can observe the structures of life as well as the Construction of Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning. For example, we walked to the shoreline, and students responded to what they were seeing and made a model of the rocky shore habitat and showed it to the entire school. This supported scientific skills including measurement, scale, proportion, quantity, including structure and function. Not only did this support science standards, but students expressed what they learned through writing and verbally communicating with other students and teachers. It was so inspiring to see!


Where there any challenges during the field work and projects?

There’s always so many challenges in organizing field trips and any time spent outside of the classroom, as it's tiring, and we have to arrive at school early to get on the bus, then arrive at our destination. However, the fruits of all these labors are entirely worth it, as it profoundly impacts the students. For example, one year, we went out on the boat, and we pulled up multiple leopard sharks, and students got to touch and see a shark up-close. Following that, I asked students to write a report on an animal, and most of the students wrote reports on the leopard shark because of the connection they made with a living shark on the Discovery Voyage. So, the impact is real.


How do you find funding to support these experiences for your students at Peralta?

MSI has always provided funding resources for us, and when our school was Title 1, I was able to receive a full scholarship for the field trip from Philanthropic Ventures Foundation--it was so easy to do, all I did was write a letter and received the grant. Also, Community Resources for Science (CRS) has been an amazing resource. Currently, our school is not considered Title 1, but fortunately, I’ve been able to receive support from parents and utilize remaining field trip funds. Of course, this changes every year and isn’t consistent, but I have been able to find the necessary resources to ensure these experiences happen for my students.


It looks like your students had an incredible year of science! What are your plans for science with your fourth graders this school year?

I’m turning it up! Because of my past experiences seeing how field investigations can make all the difference in student learning, I really want to do work that is meaningful, and teach my favorite lessons. So, this year we’re diving into investigating native bees. Students are busy learning about different types of native bees, their role in the environment, developing their own questions, and working together throughout their inquiry. Of course, sometimes we don’t always get an answer from our text or results from the experiments we design, so I’ve invited experts to come in to help us answer those questions. We are participating in the MSI Discovery Voyage: Scientific Method Combination Program again this year, which really helps students organize and design a system for collecting data, a system that we use throughout the year to answer our questions about the world around us. This year, we’re doing a combination of land and water experiments, connecting marine science, ecology, and gardening. Also, I’m hoping that students will have a chance to participate in citizen science opportunities and hopefully publish findings from their research projects.


It was an absolute joy learning more from Ana Thomas and her 2017-18 fourth graders!

Look to Marine Science Institute to enhance student's skills in scientific inquiry and investigation practices through NGSS aligned, Scientific Method Combination Program. This program offers three habitats to choose from in which classes conduct different research projects:

  • Discovery Voyage: students collect, analyze and interpret data of fish populations in the San Francisco Bay

  • Marsh and Beach Exploration: students collect, analyze and interpret wrack line data at the sandy beach

  • Tidepool Exploration: students collect, analyze and interpret data along transects throughout the rocky inter-tidal zones

CALL (650) 364-2760 to learn more, and to book an MSI School Program for your students!


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