UCLA Lab School’s “Creek Week” Celebrates Natural Evironment, Community Building

Restoration of native plant species to Stone Canyon Creek has created a living classroom for UCLA Lab School, university's students.

While unloading a truckload of 1,500 native plants on a Fall 2013 afternoon, volunteers and staff at UCLA Lab School looked back on how the two-year effort to restore Stone Canyon Creek has provided a unique learning laboratory for pre-K-6 and university students alike.

Stone Canyon Creek runs through the UCLA Lab School campus, providing an amazing natural resource for teachers and students.  The restoration of the creek started in 2011 when UCLA Lab School received a $7,374 Schoolyard Habitat grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for plants and materials. The grant was one of 10 awarded in California, and one of two given for restoration. This year, UCLA Lab School created “Creek Week,” a series of activities in and out of the classroom, to highlight the successful recreation in progress of Stone Canyon Creek’s original environment. In addition, the site has influenced the school’s interdisciplinary curriculum, guiding everything from science lessons to writing poetry.

UCLA Lab School students Duke Giarraputo (at left) and Anthony Zhang plant native species on their campus with Principal Norma Silva and Mark Abramson,
UCLA Lab School students Duke Giarraputo (at left) and Anthony Zhang plant native species on their campus with Principal Norma Silva and Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor, Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation. Courtesy of Laura Weishaupt

Principal Norma Silva says that Creek Week sprung from an inquiry project that UCLA Lab School students began four years ago.

“They investigated the health of the creek, and as a result posed the question to the school community, ‘How can we make our creek healthy again?’” Silva said. “Those students galvanized the whole school community to make a positive impact through activism based on acquired knowledge combined with a genuine, collaborative purpose.”

Teachers and students use the area around Stone Canyon Creek as an outdoor classroom for all ages, from pre-K students learning what makes a plant a plant, to older students testing water quality and researching macro invertebrates. Class projects provide a way for teachers to integrate key science concepts such as life cycles, water chemistry, and native ecosystems into hands-on lessons.

Ron Ando, physical plant manager, UCLA Lab School, wheels in a cart of native grasses for the Stone Creek Canyon restoration.
Ron Ando, physical plant manager, UCLA Lab School, wheels in a cart of native grasses for the Stone Creek Canyon restoration.

Creek Week events included a visit from Beth Pratt, California Director of the National Wildlife Federation, who spoke to students about the importance of preserving and restoring habitats for wildlife and certified UCLA Lab School as part of the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program.

“Students have been doing a lot of classroom activities around the creek such as testing water [quality] and looking at wildlife and ecosystems,” said Nick Belli, UCLA Lab School’s development coordinator. “In addition to the science aspects of learning about the creek, kids will do sketches of wildlife, plants, and animals.”

A truckload of more than 67 species of native California plants that was delivered in September. Plants were selected and delivered by watershed experts from the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation and purchased with funds from UCLA Lab School’s annual fundraising auction. These specimens were planted on the school grounds by UCLA Lab School students and parents.

Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, was enlisted to spearhead the Stone Canyon Creek restoration two years ago. It was about this same time that a UCLA graduate student and avid birder discovered a study of native species dating back to 1929, when the UCLA campus was built. This study showed that 67% of the native species that resided around the stream in 1929 were no longer there.  Abramson was contacted through mutual connections to begin the restoration, which he says is being done on a tight budget and mainly with volunteer hours.

“We’ve been doing it on the smallest, thinnest dime, by donating my staff’s time and my time,” he said.  “This year, the [UCLA Lab School] parents were able to get money for plants; we’ve also gotten them through a few grants. We’ve been slowly doing it as cost-effectively as we can.”

Abramson noted that the restoration work on the UCLA Lab School end of Stone Canyon Creek has finally progressed to where the creek rejoins itself on the grounds of the UCLA Anderson School. Undergraduate participants in this year’s UCLA Volunteer Day pulled out ivy vines around the creek that were part of the UCLA Lab School’s invasive landscaping to open up planting space for 67 new – and actually, original  – types of plants that are native to the Stone Canyon Creek area.

“[The ivy] didn’t do a very good job of holding the stream banks together,” Abramson said.  “When we first got here, the stream banks were like straight cliffs. As we’ve been weeding, we’ve been delicately pulling them back, so it’s become more of a natural-looking creek bank, and the kids have better access to it too.

“All we have to do now is maintain [the site] for a couple of years to make sure all our plants grow in and become well-established,” he said. “We are already starting to see more birds, more butterflies, and much better bank stabilization.”

Abramson, who is a Bruin by association – his father is an alumnus and his brother Jeff Abramson is a faculty member at the David Geffen School of Medicine – quipped that, “We couldn’t let Berkeley be the only UC school with a creek restoration on campus.” He says that his favorite aspect of the creek restoration project is how the area has become a vibrant “classroom” for the both UCLA Lab School and UCLA in general.

Volunteers from the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation prepared a truckload of plants for Creek Week's community activity. L-R: Rod Abbott, field and research technician; Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor; David Robinson, volunteer; and Melissa Gomez ('13, B.S., Ecology, Behavior and Evolution), SMRF volunteer
Volunteers from the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation prepared a truckload of native grasses and plants for Creek Week’s community activity. L-R: David Robinson, SMRF volunteer; Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor; Rod Abbott field and research technician; and Melissa Gomez (’13, B.S., Ecology, Behavior and Evolution), SMRF volunteer

“I see [students] from the Engineering Department and the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability taking water samples, measuring water flow, and using it as a field lab,” Abramson said. “I have eight-year-olds measuring water quality, checking the [insect life], seeing how healthy the creek is, and measuring the stream flow and seeing what the pH levels are. And then they do a poster session just like we did in college. It’s amazing.”

Ryan Gates is the mother of two UCLA Lab School students and serves on the school’s Architecture and Grounds committee. She says that the ability to use the creek as a learning resource has yielded profound results by ingraining the school’s young students with a better understanding of environmental issues and how the community at large can take responsibility for them.

“The idea of Creek Week came about as bringing the parents as well as the student body into a celebration of the creek and the UCLA Lab School environment, and what that environment means to the larger global environment,” she said.

“There is a new awareness [when the kids] do research around the creeks,” said Gates. “A friend of mine said, ‘My son put on his gardening gloves and said, ‘Mom, don’t ever use chlorine again, because it’s going into our water and into our creeks.’ That story brings it home.”

 

Above: UCLA Lab School students prepare to plant native species on the Stone Creek Canyon site of their campus. Courtesy of Laura Weishaupt