Tony Serrano-Perez, a fourth-grader at Valle Vista Elementary School in San Jose, had his first encounters with wild animals in the Palo Alto Baylands this year as part of the EcoCenter's Junior Naturalist program.
"Last time I was here I saw a turkey vulture, a peregrine falcon, a dove, a barn owl and a great horned owl ... and a marsh rat," he said on a recent afternoon, glancing over in excitement as EcoCenter volunteers set up for a day of program activities.
The EcoCenter, a large boat-shaped building whose backyard is the Baylands, is home to local nonprofit Environmental Volunteers, which promotes environmental education and connection with nature through community events and programs. One of its programs, the Junior Naturalist program, is the Environmental Volunteers' first after-school program dedicated to kids in third through fifth grades.
Brenda Serrano-Perez said she was thrilled to have Tony, her son, participate in the program.
"It is a nature program in nature," said Serrano-Perez, a chemistry and engineering professor at San Jose State University. "It's not just something you're reading about or hearing about. They actually go out there and do bird watching, among other things, so they're actually immersed in the topic that they're looking at."
The Junior Naturalist program is split into four sessions, one taking place every other Wednesday. Each session focuses on a different topic that involves the Baylands. The first topic of this program asked kids to think about birds. After a snack and an information session, the young students -- Tony among them -- set out on the Baylands' trails to observe and identify various bird species.
Laura Cohen, a volunteer teacher for the program, said she got involved with Environmental Volunteers because she loves how children "delight in the world around them." She said that one of the highlights of the program for her was when the group went bird watching.
"At first some of the children were afraid of the birds, but they soon couldn't wait for their opportunity to touch a live bird," Cohen said. "Then we showed them how to use binoculars -- most had never even seen one before -- and we went out in the Baylands to look for birds in their natural habitat. I can't tell you how excited they were when they found a snowy egret or a stilt and were able to identify them."
Kristi Moos, the communications coordinator for Environmental Volunteers, said the Junior Naturalist program teaches kids to think critically about the environment and the different species that inhabit it. She describes the program's pedagogic strategy as "inquiry-based learning," within which trained volunteers guide students' observations through asking questions. Moos said this strategy helps kids become curious and motivates them to learn about the environment.
"The reason why we have programs like this for kids is because we believe that when they learn to be inspired and to love nature as children, when they grow up to be adults, they are going to want to preserve and protect the environment when they have the power to do so," Moos said.
Cohen also likes the close relationship between teacher and student that the program enables, as each volunteer is responsible for a small group of five to seven kids.
"Teaching in the Junior Naturalist program is different than going into the classroom," she said. "We get to work with the same children for four weeks and really get to know them on a personal level."
Moos notes that many kids in the Junior Naturalist program never have experienced nature up close, as they can in the Baylands. The Environmental Volunteers tries to give every kid the opportunity to experience this, so scholarships are available to those who cannot afford the $75 fee for the program. Eighteen out of the total current 24 students are on scholarship.
In the program's second session, the junior naturalists learned about fish by examining different parts of a dead bass.
"They're going to be touching (the fish) and investigating them, sticking their hands in the gills, feeling the scales and asking the question: 'What makes a fish a fish?'" Moos said.
Also on the agenda is a history lesson. The young students learn about the native Californian Indian life by playing traditional Ohlone games, trying on clothing typical of the time and building a fire using tools from nature. And in the next week, the focus shifts to learning about conservation and starting a nature journal.
Cohen noted how fun it was to see the kids become more comfortable with nature.
"The girls were repelled by the sight and smell of the dead fish, but by the end of the session they had their fingers in the eyes, gills, mouths, and were begging for a chance to hold the fish by themselves," she said. "At each station every children has been totally engaged in what they are doing and the wonder in their eyes makes every minute with them a joy to watch."
Serrano-Perez and Cohen said they both expect to return to the Junior Naturalist program. Cohen plans to volunteer again this fall, and Serrano-Perez hopes to make her second-grade daughter a junior naturalist next year.