CSTA Classroom Science

Bringing California’s Marine Protected Areas to Your Students

By Lori Walsh and Jenny Chien

California is at the forefront of coastal protection, and many actions being taken to preserve our coast align with standards already taught in the classroom. By keeping abreast of the latest in conservation news, it is possible to inspire students to protect the ocean without taking a trip to the shoreline.


In 2011, California adopted a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) covering the coastline. These protected spaces cover about 8% of the 1,100 mile California coastline, acting to preserve these special aquatic habitats similar to how National Parks protect habitats on land. The California MPA network is the largest connected network of protected areas in the world. Over time, the regulations on the smaller protected areas allow wildlife populations to grow, eventually spilling over into the non-protected areas. These 124 sites are designed to work together to achieve conservation goals on a larger scale.

These work in tandem with the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) by setting standards for the types of anthropogenic activities that are allowed in the areas. Designation as an MPA does not mean that the area is closed to recreation or fishing, and there are many existing lessons that teach the impact of different types of fishing methods. To learn more, visit any of these resources.
•    https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/MPAs
•    http://www.seafoodwatch.org/resources/educator-resources
•    https://www.calacademy.org/educators/lesson-plans/sustainable-fishing
•    https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/MPAs/FAQs#27530612-what-can-i-do-in-an-mpa

There are four key messages the public should take away from MPA awareness:
•    MPAs are special protected places in the ocean where marine resources can be saved for future generations.
•    MPAs are underwater preserves, similar to National Parks on land.
•    MPAs are safe areas that allow female fish (and other marine animals) to grow and reproduce.
•    MPAs are unique ocean habitats that people can visit and enjoy.

In addition, formal teacher curriculum was created and is available online.  

Underwater Parks Day is an annual event in which your class can take part. Many aquariums throughout the state, including Aquarium of the Pacific, Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND California Resort, and Cabrillo Marine Aquarium hold events in January. These special events bring together environmental organizations to educate about MPAs and reach audiences that often do not live near the coast. These events are a great opportunity for educators to tap into the environmental literacy resources and align them to the Environmental Principles and Concepts that were developed to help students deepen their understanding of the connection between humans and nature. To learn more about the development of the California Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs), visit: https://www.californiaeei.org/media/1078/epc-development.pdf

Kids and families visiting participating aquariums during Underwater Parks Day can learn how they can enjoy and protect these aquatic habitats and how families can get involved in caring for our ocean locally. 

As educators, it is more important than ever to help students see the impacts that humans make on our environment. Many grade level Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have the human impact on Earth systems performance expectations; which highlight how human choices make a huge difference in our environment. Particularly, the Disciplinary Core Idea (DCI) dimension of the standard: ESS3.C (Earth and Space Sciences) is specially addressed in the following grade levels: Kindergarten, 5th Grade, Middle school, and High School. To learn more about these specific grade level Human Impact on Earth Systems standards, visit San Diego County of Education’s Science Resource Center website.

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Bringing current conservation efforts to your students creates a personal connection to the ocean. There are many kid-friendly activities designed to raise awareness of “underwater parks” or Marine Protected Areas. Your local aquarium may also have activities you can do to prepare for a visit or to teach about MPAs in the classroom. Schools that are far from the coast can take virtual field trips to MPAs to experience the underwater world. Creating a robust environmental curriculum can be accomplished by using the various resources on MPAs. Your students could be the next generation of ocean stewards.


Lori Walsh is the Education/Operations Manager at SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND California Resort and Informal Science Director for CSTA. lori.walsh0204@gmail.com

Jenny Chien is a K-5 STEM Specialist at Casita Center for Technology, Science, and Math in Vista Unified School District; a 2017 California Teacher of the Year; a Core Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative; and CSTA’s Primary Director. ms.jennychien@gmail.com


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