The drainage that empties into Chollas Creek and trickles through the empty acres east of Gompers Secondary School carries with it traces of neighborhood life on the north side of California 94: motor oil, home pesticides and whatever else washes off the streets.
But the 3.6-acre site next to the southeast San Diego school may soon become an outdoor learning center, dedicated to hands-on science about the environment, alternative energy, the Chollas Creek watershed, and the pollutants that pervade the low-income neighborhood, where some hazardous industries sit a stone's throw from homes.
Plans for the learning lab were forged by staffers at the Environmental Health Coalition and teachers at the math, science and computer magnet school--and if all goes according to plan, the multidisciplinary science playground will accomplish far more than conventional school programs.
Promoters hope the swatch of land bordered by California 94 on the north and Euclid Avenue on the east will draw more minorities into science careers, teach students and the surrounding community about the dangers of urban pollution, and fulfill a range of state science curriculum requirements in a hands-on environment built by the students themselves.
It will do all that, backers hope, by tapping volunteers, government grants and funding sources that aren't available to the school district--already low on funds and facing a strict fiscal diet in coming years.
"The main thrust of the program is to get more underrepresented minorities into the field of science," said Harry Shelton, who chairs the Gompers science department. "One of the things we've encountered is a reduction of money available for field trips. This is a way to involve students in environmental science and get them involved in more science projects as a result."
Ultimately, if the money comes through, the site will include an outdoor amphitheater, a "technology center" complete with windmills and solar panels for energy studies, a wetlands environment for biological studies, an organic garden, indoor-outdoor greenhouses and maybe even a worm farm and butterfly and hummingbird gardens.
The lab will also be used to educate the students about urban runoff into storm drains. Those sources of pollution make up half the contamination in America's waterways, the EPA concluded last year, and the Chollas Creek watershed is a prime example, environmentalists say.
"We're trying to integrate science instead of just having it in a vacuum," Shelton said. The area will be used to demonstrate the relationship between heat, energy and work; check out firsthand how evolution fashions subspecies of plants; look at how non-native plants take over an area; and even polish up on map-making and soil-sampling skills, he added.
The outdoor lab is just one aspect of a larger Chollas Creek project, headed by the Environmental Health Coalition. That project--now a year old--has included community distribution of posters of the watershed based on a painting by muralist Victor Ochoa, calenders about the creek by schoolchildren, and outreach to the community and local business.
The coalition also fashioned an integrated pest management program for a large cemetery in the Chollas Creek watershed.
Laura Hunter, who heads the Chollas Creek project, said promoters of the outdoor lab are scrambling to meet a grant application deadline next week for Caltrans funds earmarked for mitigation projects. The Caltrans money will go to restore or mitigate destruction of native habitat near Interstate 15 and California 94, Hunter said.
The first $100,000 raised will go to grade the area, repair an existing walkway that runs through the property, build the amphitheater, and purchase some of the native wetland species and live oaks that students will help plant to restore the area to its natural state, Hunter said.
The amphitheater will provide a forum for community experts to teach the students about organic farming, landscape architecture, environmental science, and even solar-powered computers, Hunter said.
"We're going to restore this area, replant it with native species, improve the bio-diversity, improve the water quality in the area. And the kids are going to do most of the work. They're going to help build it," Hunter said.
Hunter even foresees some whimsical disciplinary applications: The school could hook a bicycle up to a battery, and send miscreants out to power the school when they misbehave. "It's a new environmental punishment," she laughed. "Go ride the bike for 10 Watts."
Already, kids at the school--7th- to 12th-grade students--have begun planting seedlings that Hunter hopes they will be put in the ground next September. Almost all the students at Gompers have signed petitions asking for the outdoor lab, and parents have written letters of support.
Students from up to nine other elementary and secondary schools in the area will use the outdoor lab's resources, Hunter said.