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Firsthand Look at Technology Applied to Environment : Science Students Take to the Field

November 29, 1986|DAVID SMOLLAR and STEVE EMMONS | Times Staff Writers

Mike Murray of Leucadia wants more students exposed to actual field conditions that scientists face in trying to understand the environment--from earthquakes to beach erosion to endangered animals.

So Murray, 58, an electronics engineer and a student of wildlife and Earth sciences, has formed a nonprofit foundation to encourage high school and college students to go into the field and do real work.

He has taken his small, select group of students from Orange and San Diego counties to such locales as Crystal Cove State Park between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, where they are planning an artificial habitat for bald eagles, a mountain lion watch, a seismic monitoring station and a study of coastal erosion, and to San Clemente State Beach, where they plan to plant rare Torrey pines to help refurbish the park.

Murray's Conservancy Science Foundation, which is in its second year, so far has 14 students under its wing. Their introduction to field work was planting the pine trees on Catalina Island to determine whether they could adapt to new soils.

Funding for such activities comes mainly from the students' parents, Murray said. "We're not funded by any government or private group. 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."

Experts' Tutelage

Murray said in an interview that his foundation's premise "is to give students these firsthand field experiences under the tutelage of recognized experts."

"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."

Rodger Healy, 16, a junior from Laguna Beach High School and one of Murray's foundation students, said the field classes are "a lot better" than a laboratory class.

"Mike's a really good teacher, first of all," Healy said. "And all the other students are really interested in science, and they're there to actually learn. You teach them things and they teach you things."

Students interested in the program may apply through their individual schools on the recommendation of a science teacher. A minimum 2.75 (B-) grade-point average is required, along with a willingness to work hard.

"A lot of kids say that this sounds like fun, but they lose interest real quickly when they find out there is also the nitty-gritty of working up technical reports to turn in for (school) credit," Murray said.

So far, most of the students have come from San Diego County schools, but Murray said he expects the program to catch on in Orange County, where many of his field locations exist.

'Right Science Teacher'

He said he has approached representatives of Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills and Dana Hills high schools. "We know there must be some interested students in those schools, and getting hold of the right science teacher is the key." The right science teacher at Laguna Beach High School turned out to be John Wilkerson, whom Murray met while doing field work at Crystal Cove. The 2,800-acre state park and beach are "right in John's backyard," Murray said.

Through Wilkerson, Healy and another Laguna Beach student, sophomore Paul Puma III, joined the foundation.

In the past several months, the foundation students have been taking soil samples at Crystal Cove. The work involves analyzing the samples in a lab with 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 submitted to the state Department of Parks and Recreation, which will use the information to select what kinds of trees to plant in the park.

"In this instance, we can benefit because we can find out how best to carry out our planting theme," said Bill Tippets, associate resource ecologist in the southern region headquarters of the state parks system in San Diego.

And the nation eventually may benefit as well, he said, because programs such as Murray's may stimulate more students to stay in science and halt what many see as a slippage in American scientific achievement, Tippets said.

'Cougar Watch'

Murray said 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 problems similar to those at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park east of San Juan Capistrano, where cougars have attacked two children.

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