ranger observing the shoreline
Ranger Rhiannon during a video conference with students in Año Nuevo State Park.


(Note: Although these projects are about California State Parks, they can act as models for designing projects about any state park or ecosystem in need of protection.)

Bringing the outside world into my classroom became a personal passion of mine. The first time I connected my students to the world beyond the classroom walls through live video conferencing, my students and I were hooked. My students engaged with programmers working in Silicon Valley, professionals working in our neighborhood, and other classrooms around the world. Through every new connection made with an authentic audience beyond the classroom walls, the world of my students in Escondido expanded. So you can imagine how elated I was when the California State Parks PORTS Program asked me to author Project Based Learning units which connected students to rangers in four different parks along the coast of California to help students become advocates for Marine Protected Areas (also known as MPAs).logos of the California State Parks partners

California State Parks has had a long history of connecting students to nature through educational programs in their PORTS program (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students). For years teachers and students have been utilizing the free resources found on their webpage such as educational units of study, online learning opportunities, and the ability to have a live video conference with a ranger in the park. Recently, the PORTS program added PBL units which I designed using the Buck Institute’s Gold Standard PBL Project Design Elements.

There are four Project Based units for teachers to select:

  • Crystal Cove Unit: Saving the Intertidal Zone
  • Pyramid Point Unit: The Story of the Coho Salmon
  • Point Lobos Unit: Caring for the Kelp
  • Año Nuevo Unit: Protecting the Food Web of the Elephant Seals

These projects ask students to create a public service announcement to help spread the word about how we, as a community, can help save the Marine Protected Areas located in the California State Parks. From protecting the kelp forests of Point Lobos State Marine Reserve to advocating for the intertidal zone of Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area, these projects provide opportunities for sustained inquiry, student choice, and allow for students to make their work public as they work in collaboration with a California State Parks ranger. Integral to a successful project, students are provided opportunities to reflect, receive feedback, and revise their work to make a public product that is worth sharing outside the classroom walls. These projects are designed for any teacher to successfully manage a Project Based Learning experience in their classroom. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced project based teacher, you will easily be able to integrate these projects into your classroom and hopefully inspire a new generation of students who advocate for our beautiful natural resources in the California State Parks.


ranger in the field
Meet Ranger Daniel in Point Lobos State Marine Reserve.


Science Standards & Authentic Connections

All of the units are written to meet 5th grade Next Generation Science Standards for Matter and Energy in Organisms and Ecosystems and Earth and Human Activity but can be easily adapted to meet standards in K-8 science. In addition, all of the units follow the same basic project outline which includes the unit launch where students meet the ranger they will be working with throughout the project, scaffolding and managing the project where students gather need to know information through the use of MPA PORTS curriculum (in collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife), and the final showcase where students share their work with an authentic audience, including a California State Parks ranger.

Students will have two live video conferences throughout this project. The first video conference is with a ranger who will provide students an opportunity to get a tour of some of the locations in the park and allow students to refine their understanding by being able to ask questions specific to their project research. The second live video conference will be at the end of the project where students will showcase their work. Through video conferencing your students will not only be going on a virtual field trip, they will also be developing a valuable partnership with a ranger and California State Parks.

Project Based Learning experiences such as these units allow students to work collaboratively to solve a real world problem, while also using critical success skills such as creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. While visiting a California State Park in person can be a challenge for many kids, these PBL experiences through the California State Parks PORTS program allows our students to travel beyond the school walls and become stewards of our beautiful natural resources, providing equity and access for all students.

Jo-Ann Fox, Instructional Coach, Escondido Union School District, CA