San Simeon Science Studies: Plankton, Stargazing and Ocean Engineering

Earlier this month, Mount Madonna School (MMS) tenth grade students headed south to the coast near San Simeon for a three-day, two-night camping trip and study of the marine ecosystem. During sophomore year, MMS students have the opportunity to choose between a course in oceanography or oceanographic engineering for the second semester. Both courses are University of California honors laboratory science classes. The courses are the culmination of the MMS high school marine science program and a preschool through tenth grade science program that heavily emphasizes ocean literacy in every grade.

The learning goals of the class are aligned with the ocean literacy curricular framework brought to Mount Madonna School by the Wrigley Center for Environmental Studies and the Consortium for Ocean Science Exploration and Engagement (COSEE). Students complete hands-on capstone activities engaging with all seven ocean literacy principles at the apex of the framework. Students also are encouraged to bond with their class and experience the practice of science as it is done in the real world, which provides more insight than learning the foundations of basic science in the classroom as to what science careers are like.

Students use dichotomous keys to catalog marine plants and press them in an arts-integrated project, they complete a plankton tow and examine the local microbiome under digital microscopes, they design, build and fly ROVs in natural bodies of water, and they complete behavioral ethograms on keystone species in the ocean ecosystem they visit.

Following, several students reflection on their San Simeon experience.

“San Simeon was a really fun trip. My biggest ‘aha moment’ was when Sophia, Ona and I built our ROV. I never really took myself for a science/engineering type of person, but all of a sudden, I found myself collaborating with these girls on an ROV! I thought it was really fun trying to figure out the different ways we could build the boning of the ROV structure, as well as figuring out where to put the motors and camera. I really enjoyed the balance of science work and free time we had on this trip. We had a lot of freedom and for that I am very grateful. It made the trip much more enjoyable and easier for our class to bond. We were able to take initiative of the meal planning as well as the activities that didn’t involve our studies.” – Anya Gonzalez

“I think the biggest learning moment for me was when we watched the elephant seals and recorded their behaviors. It was really fun to see them in person and even more interesting to watch how they interact with each other while we were not too far away. Something that sparked my curiosity was Hearst Castle. We didn’t have enough time to go look at it closer but we saw it from the street and it looked huge. If they do this trip again with the sophomores next year, they should definitely visit the castle. Something I’ll always remember is when we all laid on the ground in the middle of the street at night to see the stars, in the campground. It was also really funny to see all my classmates run around in the dark at night and play tag.” – Erin Kavitsky

“The San Simeon trip was really fun. My biggest ‘aha moment’ was when we saw the elephant seals fight. It was super cool because I had never experienced it before. Just sitting and staring out at the ocean made me think of how tiny and insignificant we are in the universe. Something I will remember about this trip is when the whole class laid down in a circle and looked up at the stars.” – Ona Musoll-Buendia  

“Before the trip, I didn’t know how small plankton really are. After seeing it through the microscope I thought, ‘oh my, that’s really small.’ One thing that sparked my interest in the world was how elephant seals can hold their breaths for so long. It fascinates me that an animal of that size can hold their breath for up to two hours and dive as deep as 5,015 feet!” – Wyatt Adams


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.