Buddy Science: Students Kayak and Learn Together at Elkhorn Slough

Mount Madonna School teachers Lisa Catterall and Hamsa Heinrich smiled and looked on as about 30 students frolicked together at the shoreline, enjoying a break after a morning of kayaking together at Elkhorn Slough.

“My favorite moment was at lunch when we played at sinking down to our knees in the wet sand, and discovered all kinds of interesting life in the mud-flats,” said twelfth grader Aimee Hopkins. “We even found a red ghost shrimp.”



Catterall, who teaches eighth grade and high school science, and Heinrich, who teaches third grade, took the seniors and third grade students to Elkhorn Slough as part of an integrated unit on Elasmobranchs (sharks and rays). The seniors are ‘big buddies’ with the third graders, and share environmental science classes and projects on a regular basis.

“This experience is set-up to give both groups of students an age-appropriate challenge and an opportunity for positive character development. This activity was designed to give older students an opportunity to mentor the younger students, and the younger students to gain independence. Students spent several hours kayaking under the direction of Kim Powell, a naturalist, guide and founder of Blue Water Ventures.

“Because every third grader is paired with a senior, the younger children can do this extreme activity (normally the age is 5th grade),” Catterall says. “Students learned about and came up-close with harbor seals, herons, egrets, sea otters, and sea lions, then deployed a drag-net and learned about some of the animals below the surface (the animals were released after a brief examination). This experience builds character as both groups are challenged differently and work together to find success.”

The teachers say that participating in this program, which focuses on ecosystem relationships and habitat conservation, helps raise awareness among students about wetlands and sloughs as being key to preserving biodiversity in the surrounding Pajaro Watershed.

“There is nothing like coming up close with a sea otter to inspire environmental stewardship in our students,” remarks Catterall.

“We had a good moment with a sea otter really close to us,” agrees twelfth grader Sanika Lakka. “He was rubbing his face with his paws. I feel happy that sea otters and humans can live together.”

While they were kayaking, students paddled out to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) buoy, which is monitoring pollutant levels in the slough. The seniors will be analyzing data collected at this buoy later in the year.

“In our classroom after the trip, the third graders brainstormed a huge chart of facts and information from their day at the slough,” shares Heinrich. “Students were excited by the amazing, thrilling contact with otters, harbor seals, sea lions, lion jellyfish, ghost shrimp and many, many birds. Their very favorite and most powerful memory, however, was the fact that they were able to spend quality time paddling a kayak with an older kid who modeled kindness, care and interest, and played hard with them! It is a very special connection.”























Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Marketing and Public Relations,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.