Teaching Kids About Science via PORTS

With support from Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks and similar nonprofits, the PORTS program is helping California students learn science via distance learning.

by Traci Hukill

March 18, 2014—In a classroom in the Central Valley farm town of Hanford, 30 miles south of Fresno, 20 second-graders are doing butterfly exercises. Their eyes are fixed on a screen at the front of the classroom where a California State Parks interpreter in a ranger hat leads them through a series of simple poses corresponding to the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. “Eggs. Chrysalis. Caterpillar,” says the interpreter, waiting a few beats between each word while the kids get into the pose with a noisy shuffling. “Butterfly. Cold butterfly.”

Two hundred miles away from the classroom, in a bare room at Seacliff State Beach, Vonnie Lempke is watching the second-graders as closely as they are watching her. She stands in front of a wall painted Kelly green, two monitors positioned before her. One peers into the classroom. The other reflects Lempke’s own image, enhanced TV weatherman–style with a map of the western United States where she gestures to show the migration paths of the monarchs.

Read about a new science resource for teachers in Bringing Science Class to Life
Read about innovative parks support in Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks

Lempke pauses. “By the way, do you all know what ‘migration’ means?” she asks.

“Noooo,” comes the chorus. In the classroom, off-camera, the teacher calls on a student who offers a halting definition of the concept.

This is the Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS) program, an award-winning innovation by California State Parks that connects classrooms around the state with instructors at seven California state parks for videoconference lessons ranging from 30 minutes for kindergartners to an hour for high school students. Three basic subjects—monarch butterflies, mammals and elephant seal adaptations and evolution—are tailored to age group by instructors such as Lempke. By this fall all PORTS lessons will be aligned with Common Core state standards. And the service, though originally designed to reach kids in areas underserved by state parks, is free to any teacher who wants to use it.

That access is thanks in part to nonprofit associations around the state that support the program. For the PORTS program at Seacliff, it’s Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, which donated $17,000 to the program last year and has repaired and replaced equipment as needed since the beginning.

“We pay for staff and equipment costs and have been doing so for many years,” says Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. “We’re so proud to fund this program.”

In early March the statewide PORTS program was honored with one of six Superintendent’s Awards for Excellence in Museum Education, a joint initiative of the California Association of Museums and the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

PORTS to Underserved Kids

Lempke, a retired classroom and PE teacher, loves her work with PORTS. It can be very demanding—she’s taught as many as five sessions in a day, which is a long time for a teacher to be “on”—but she says it’s worth it.

“This is really a fun job, I’ll tell you that,” she says. “I really am connecting with kids when there’s a camera in the room.”

Around the room is evidence that the students like what they’re getting. Handmade cards and mementos are pasted to a piece of foamcore board. One classroom’s thank-you project—cutout purple butterflies with photos of the kids making antennae with their arms—lies on a table nearby.

In the 2011-12 school year, the PORTS program at Seacliff reached more than 8,300 students, about half of them in first or second grade. About 5,000 of those students hailed from Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego and Yuba counties.

Heather Holm, PORTS program coordinator, says 64% of the kids served by the program are from Title 1 schools, meaning they’re eligible for federal funding. Holm, who connects with the teachers, says, “We purposely target areas like the Central Valley where there are fewer state parks or lots of low-income students.” She ticks off the names of northerly counties that fall into that category: Siskiyou, Humboldt, Shasta.

The second-grade classroom at Pioneer Elementary School in Hanford lies in Kings County, another such area. While it would be harsh to say Hanford is in a parks desert—after all, magnificent Sequoia National Park is not far away—the more affordable and less crowded state parks are scarce in that area. In fact, on a map showing state parks locations throughout California (click on "By Region" to see the map), Hanford lies smack in the middle of an empty spot.

Some of the PORTS programs feature site-specific footage. The program based at Anza-Borrego, for example, has a satellite truck that can go around the park. At Crystal Cove the interpreter gives the lesson next to a tidepool.

“We’re reaching students who didn’t even know state parks exist,” says Holm.

The program has even served out-of-state students from New York, Ohio, Georgia and Virginia, and senior activity centers in Minnesota and Missouri have signed up, proving that if you build something of quality, people will line up to use it.

For more information, visit the Seacliff PORTS program page on the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks website or the California State Parks PORTS page.