To print this page, select File-> Print from your browser menu.

Learning from First Graders Concerned About an Oil Spill

Primary Responders

Missy Wipf


"I'm just SICK about the oil spill on the Bay." "Is there anything my students and I can do to help?"

In the days following the Cosco Busan accident in San Francisco Bay, these were common sentiments in the many phone calls and email messages we received from teachers. There was not only genuine concern on their parts but a sincere desire to help. There was also an underlying tone of helplessness—understandable considering the magnitude of such an event. A marine oil spill had become something real and tangible for people in the Bay Area, because it happened in their own "back yard." They could see the direct effects of the oil, including live and dead birds on local beaches and oil slicks on bay and nearshore waters; some even said they could smell the fumes.

Despite their eagerness to help, the public was advised to stay away from beaches due to the health hazards associated with exposure to oil, as well as the need for trained professionals to follow specific protocols in the legal documentation of both live and dead oiled birds. So, what could a class of students and their teachers really do to help?

The more conversations I had with teachers, though, the more I realized that students were actually coming up with solutions to this problem on their own. With their very inventive and successful ideas to help birds and the bay, all they needed was a little guidance from PRBO and their teachers.
First-grade students fly their "penny drive" banner, aimed at helping oiled seabirds. Photo courtesy Alex Dakin.

One inspiring example of this student-driven effort comes from a San Francisco classroom of first-graders. During the week following the spill, PRBO educators were scheduled to deliver a program to them, on local songbirds. We had been working with Lafayette Elementary school for years and, in particular, with first-grade teacher Alex Dakin. She is a long-time supporter not only of our education programs in her classroom but also of PRBO. Alex was one of the first teachers to contact me after the oil spill, and we knew her students would have many questions about it, so we decided to incorporate a marine and seabird component in our lesson.

When PRBO staff arrived at the classroom early Tuesday morning, parents were dropping their children off for the day. As they learned of our intent, some of the parents, who had been helping Alex and the classroom raise funds for the oil spill efforts, decided to stay and learn more about how oil affects seabirds and about PRBO's involvement.

The first-graders could hardly contain their eagerness to share the news with us that they were going to help the birds. One little girl blurted out, as we began our lesson, "Our class is helping the birds from the oil!" Another student came up to me and whispered, "I put one dollar in the jar this morning." While that may not seem like a large amount, it was obvious how proud he was of his major contribution. I had to smile and congratulate him on this selfless act.

And I was not the only one who "caught" the children's infectious enthusiasm. What started as an effort to educate Alex Dakin's first-grade students about birds as indicators of ecosystem health spread into other classrooms, reaching students, teachers, and parents throughout the school. Through many additional calls and classroom visits, we know that this excitement and energy have found their way into schools and communities around the Bay Area.

The classrooms at Lafayette Elementary received tremendous response to their efforts to raise money for the oil spill, which they will donate to organizations like PRBO that have been part of the Cosco Busan response. At Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael, third-graders made a similar donation to PRBO.

This effort started with a class of 20 first-graders. Imagine what hundreds, thousands, or millions of people could accomplish if we followed their example and worked together toward the common goal of conserving our marine ecosystem.