"Have you ever felt an earthquake?" asked Environmental Volunteers team coordinator Nancy Mayo of energetic fourth-graders sitting cross-legged Monday in a classroom at Castro Elementary School in Mountain View.
Several hands shot up in affirmation as students recalled the experience.
"It felt intense," one girl said. "I actually went under my bed."
Several other enthusiastic comments followed during a classroom lesson on earthquakes, the follow-up to a field trip the students recently took to learn about tectonic plates and quakes at Los Trancos Preserve near Los Altos Hills.
Both lesson and field trip were organized by Environmental Volunteers, a Palo Alto nonprofit that works to level the playing field for thousands of low-income elementary students each year — most of whom otherwise would only receive an hour of science instruction each week — by providing hands-on, interactive science education in local school districts, said Executive Director Elliott Wright.
The nonprofit received a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund this year to support Environmental Volunteers' public education series — lectures, art exhibits, bird walks and other hands-on nature and science education opportunities for all ages.
Since 1972, Environmental Volunteers has worked to inspire in young students a passion for science and nature. The nonprofit was founded in Portola Valley by a group of women who called themselves the "Walkie Talkies," Wright said. The women went out for walks together and became increasingly concerned about the connection between protecting local nature and the lack of environmental education in schools. Gathered around a kitchen table, they developed a curriculum and then started taking students out to the Bay to explore and learn, Wright said.
Today, Environmental Volunteers is headquartered in the EcoCenter, a public nature center in the Baylands Nature Preserve, and works with 145 schools throughout the Bay Area, including in the Palo Alto Unified, Ravenswood City and Mountain View-Whisman school districts. More than 100 volunteers serve 10,000 students each year, according to the nonprofit. Environmental Volunteers also works with homeschooled students.
Greater than half of the nonprofit's programs were delivered to schools where 40 percent or more of students are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, and 43 percent were located at "extreme" low-income schools, where 70 percent or more of students are on the lunch program.
"They don't get access to the same science education nor the same access to field trips and natural sciences" as better-resourced students, Wright said.
Environmental Volunteers' lessons are aligned with California's Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten through sixth grade. In 2011, the nonprofit launched a transportation fund to provide subsidies to enable low-income youth to go on science and environmental education field trips.
"There are so many Bay Area children who, despite their proximity to the Bay, redwood forests, oak woodlands and coastal trails, never get the opportunity," Wright wrote in a recent fundraising message.
He recalled a fifth-grader from East Palo Alto named Francisco who had seemed very stressed out, Wright said, until they arrived at the Fitzgerald Marine Preserve in Moss Beach on a field trip.
"We rounded the corner at this specific spot at Fitzgerald — you turn the corner and then can see the whole ocean. As we turned that corner and he looked out, I won't ever forget what he said. He said, 'I never knew the world was this big,'" Wright said.
The Castro Elementary School students who recently went on the trip to Los Trancos delved deeper into the world of earthquakes on Monday. The students were split up into small groups for activities, including testing structures they built from Play-Doh, toothpicks and straws on a shake table to understand how buildings can be damaged in earthquakes. Another group plotted real earthquakes of varying magnitudes on a large map of California, the color-coded pins eventually creating an image of the San Andreas Fault snaking down the state. With a third group, volunteer Drew Thompson demonstrated the impact of shifting tectonic plates using two pieces of paper and a pile of sand.
The students were noticeably energized by the hands-on activities and full of questions.
"That's what science does," Mayo told the group of students. "It makes us think about things and gives us more questions."
The earthquake curriculum is a mainstay of Environmental Volunteers but was recently overhauled to align with the state's new Next Generation Science Standards, Wright said. Another new program coming in 2019 is a biodiversity curriculum.
The nonprofit is also currently running a matching challenge grant to reach schools on Environmental Volunteers' waitlist.
Wright became Environmental Volunteers' executive director this spring, replacing longtime director Allan Berkowitz, but he's not new to the organization. He worked alongside the nonprofit in previous jobs at the Nature Conservancy, Palo Alto tree nonprofit Canopy and Sempervirens Fund in Los Altos, which works to preserve local redwood forests and parks.
The implications of his new role, however, feel particularly impactful in 2018, he said. The nonprofit estimates there are 130,000 additional children whom Environmental Volunteers could serve — thousands of unrealized future environmental stewards.
"What I've realized is that all of the conservancy wins that we have today are nothing without tomorrow's generation as advocates and supporters," Wright said, "because if we don't have the next generation with us, we'll see a rollback on every single win we've had."
More information on the Holiday Fund, including how to donate, can be found at PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund.