It's one thing for a group of science students to visit a bald eagle sanctuary and see the majestic birds moving about, free of danger from pesticides or gun-toting hunters.
But it's a more fundamental learning experience when the students are taught about the banding and radio instrumentation that allows researchers to keep track of the birds, as well as the methods used to encourage breeding.
Leucadia resident Mike Murray wants to expose more students to the actual field conditions that scientists face when carrying out projects to understand the environment--from earthquakes to beach erosion to preservation of endangered animals.
To that end, the Cubic Corp. engineer has set up a nonprofit foundation to encourage students--from junior high to junior college--to go out into the field and learn how to set up a study project.
The Conservancy Science Foundation sponsors lectures and trips for students in San Diego and Orange counties. It started with the planting of Torrey pines on Catalina Island to determine if the rare trees can adapt to new soils.
Now in its second year, the foundation, with 14 students as regular participants, has expanded its focus to include projects elsewhere in Southern California, including state parks. Murray brings in ecology and earth sciences experts to visit with the students.
"The idea is to give students these firsthand field experiences under the tutelage of recognized experts," Murray said.
"Too many students who want to be in science are not at all familiar with the explosion in technology that is applied to all fields
in science, from tiny electronics on the wings of (eagles) to microscopic sensors in the ground to detect earthquakes.
"These technologies are useful tools to scientists, and students need to have a basic understanding of how they can work in the field.
"We're not trying in any way to replace high school or college instruction. But we do want to augment and show how basic math or chemistry is brought out into the field and used.
"How do you take a soil sample? How do you set up equipment? How do you identify a type of tree or mineral?"
Students who are interested in the program can apply, on the recommendation of a science teacher, through their schools. A minimum 2.75 grade point average is required, along with a willingness to work hard.
Funding comes mainly from the students' parents, Murray said. "We're not funded by any government or private group," he said. "We applied for a state education grant, but we were turned down. It is a problem. We are going to do things that need a substantial outlay in the future." He is expecting some assistance from private corporations.
"A lot of kids say that this sounds like fun but they lose interest real quickly when they find out (that in addition) there is also the nitty-gritty of working up technical reports to turn in for (school) credit," Murray said.
"This is a situation where the kids really have to be willing to work."
Tina Hamilton, a junior at Torrey Pines High School, said she would never have known the importance of soil composition except for the program.
The students have been spending weekends the last several months taking soil samples at Crystal Cove State Park, a largely undeveloped park near Laguna Beach in Orange County. The work involves extracting a sample of soil from a core probe, then analyzing it in a lab through a series of simple tests for acidity, particle size and presence of basic elements such as nitrogen and phosphorous.
When completed, the results will be turned over to the State Department of Parks and Recreation, which will use the information to decide what trees will grow best there.
"We are trying to assist them if they want to become scientists," said Bill Tippets, associate resource ecologist in the southern region headquarters of the state parks system in San Diego. The soil tests will show whether the park has mineral or salt content in its soil that would harm certain plants, Tippets said.
"In this instance, we can benefit because we can find out how best to carry out our planting theme," Tippets said. He added that programs such as the foundation's can stimulate more students to stay in science and halt what many people see as a slippage in American scientific prowess.
"It has shown me that there's a lot more to nature than I ever knew," Hamilton said. "I was not really interested in science in general until I joined and found out how important it is to preserve the environment and what you have to do in the field."
Murray said the students also hope to carry out a "cougar watch" at Crystal Cove to get an idea of how many mountain lions roam the area and what paths they take. Based on the findings, warning signs and other cautionary measures can be taken to avoid animal-human problems similar to those recently at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park in Orange County, where mountain lions have attacked children.