Leaning in to examine a barnacle feeding in Haystack Rock’s intertidal zone, young scientists comment about the filter feeder’s ability to scavenge from a set location. “Hey, look at this, come here,” one beckons, peering into a new tidepool to examine a hermit crab. Five more run after. These scientists are Astor Elementary 2nd graders field tripping along the coast in Cannon Beach. After studying this unique ecosystem of sticky hard-shelled invertebrates and adaptable predators for weeks, their learning has culminated with a hands-on look at the biodiversity just a few towns away.
“For any unit we do, the ultimate is for the topic to be right there in the classroom,” educator Tim Mahoney explains, laying out the reasoning behind the trip. “Often that’s not possible though, so by visiting the tide pools, we are able to put the students right in the middle of everything.” And many for the first time. Although the legendary sea stack, Haystack Rock, is accessible by a short drive, many Astor students took their maiden voyage in an Astor school bus.
Their excitement over seeing the topic of their studies firsthand was palpable. Students spent several weeks before the adventure learning about the adaptations and attributes of the flora and fauna that survive in this variable habitat. They investigated the challenges these organisms face as their environment’s temperature and moisture level change between tides. Each student became an expert on an organism’s survival, then shared this knowledge with the class.
Then, after weeks of looking at pictures and watching videos, they finally headed out to witness the ecosystem in action. The scientists grabbed their boots and trudged down to the field site. Teachers stepped back and let the students discover, Tim explains, “They see the tide pools, beach and ocean and understand how these diverse habitats are intertwined.” Some questions were answered, while new inquiries bloomed as the students moved through a scientific cycle of collaboration and research, questioning and critical thinking.
Haystack Rock is not just a field trip destination though, it is an iconic landmark for all along the Oregon coast, welcoming visitors daily. The Haystack Rock Awareness Program (HRAP) mans the site with expert volunteers. They guide guests through the habitat at low tides in the spring and summer months. These scholars of the sea share information about the rock’s inhabitants and history of the formation. The rock has been protected since 1968 when it was designated as a nesting habitat and a part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. About 15 years after its protection was ensured, Neal and Karen Maine began teaching the public about the fascinating history of the rock and camouflaged creatures that make it their home. This grew and morphed into the city program coastal residents and visitors utilize today. According to Lisa Habecker the HRAP’s Volunteer and Education Coordinator, the program will see about 800 more kids on field trips after Astor’s crew heads home
Lisa organizes the school sessions and heads up HRAP’s summer camps as well. She has a deep understanding of the biology of the area, as well what is developmentally appropriate for her young visitors. Upon arrival, Lisa told Astor students, “The beach and its materials are protected. You can only take home lots of cool memories, and maybe some photographs. And wet and sandy clothes.” She then sent them out to explore and learn from her volunteers. A few hours later when buses were loaded and sand poured from shoes, sleepy 2nd graders recalled their favorite parts of the day, “Seeing a green sculpin,
because I thought they could only be brown,” one observed. “Hermit crabs, because I saw one switching its shell,” said another. “Touching the animals,” said a third. Teachers hope this school sponsored, HRAP led trip will instill a love of the coast and its ecosystems. The goal is for students to return, to learn more, teach others and become stewards of the land. “Astor Elementary students have the opportunity to study the natural world right in their own backyard,” Laura Biederman, the 2nd-grade teacher explains, so they have to value and protect it.