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County funds expansion of environmental education

SAN JOSE – Santa Clara County is supporting two organizations dedicated to accessible environmental education. Proposed by County Supervisor Joe Simitian, the County approved grants for the expansion of two local youth programs: the Youth Science Institute (YSI) and O’Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO).

“I’m pleased our County can help bring these resources to a wider audience. These programs create an opportunity for better understanding and inspire kids to learn and do more,” said Simitian.

Founded by Jack O’Neill in 1996, OSO provides free firsthand marine science learning for 5,000 fourth through sixth grade students and students with disabilities annually. Eligible students who have completed a Student Access Project that aligns with OSO’s curricula take part in the program onboard OSO’s 65-foot catamaran, with follow-up lessons taught ashore. OSO’s emphasis on creating accessible content for underprivileged students means that the Sea Odyssey experience is often a participant’s first experience on open water.

The $250,000 allotted by the County will enable OSO to expand its educational programming to 80 additional classes from under-resourced Santa Clara County schools. This impact reaches beyond the experience itself; a study of the lasting impacts of OSO revealed that 75% of participants retained knowledge from the curriculum years after attending.

"Many parts of Santa Clara County are connected to our ocean through their local watershed,” said Tracey Weiss, executive director of OSO. “This County grant will allow Santa Clara County students to understand how they are connected to our ocean ecosystem and provide youth with a hands-on learning experience that creates a connection to our natural world and positively impacts our local schools and communities."

Locally known, YSI is a nonprofit founded in 1953 with the goal of inspiring its participants to learn actively and to become invested in their ecological surroundings. The group provides hands-on learning through its science summer camps, school and community events, and safaris at its education centers in Alum Rock Park, San Jose; Sanborn County Park, Saratoga; and Vasona Lake County Park, Los Gatos.

“For decades, YSI has been giving County Park visitors and program attendees an engaging and interactive experience,” Simitian said. “Their hands-on, nature-based, science education makes earning fun for kids, families, and the public. It’s a great asset to have right here in our County parks.”

Reaching 30,000 students annually, the $125,000 grant to YSI will expand the organization’s reach and cover both programming and transportation for an estimated 3,987 students. Transportation costs especially can be a financial barrier for participating institutions.

“YSI is grateful for the County’s support,” said Erika Buck, Executive Director of YSI. “This funding will allow us to expand our programming with a focus on under-resourced schools. This will ensure that all children, regardless of socio-economic status, have access to our hands-on, science education programs at Sanborn and Vasona County parks.”

Standardized testing has consistently ranked California below the national average in science, with wider disparities among students of color or underprivileged students. Improved accessibility to science education programs also functions to boost academic interest in the sciences.

These County grants are an expansion of Simitian’s prior support of youth science education and sustainability. He has previously backed Grassroots Ecology, which in partnership with the San Jose Conservation Corps provides ecology-focused education and job training to young adults; and the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, along with several other science- and conservation-focused groups; and Acterra’s “You(th) Be the Change” project, a six-lesson program aimed at raising awareness of climate change.

In fact, Simitian’s support for outdoor environmental education dates back to his time in the State Legislature when he authored legislation establishing a state Outdoor Environmental Education Program.

“This is one of those areas where there is broad agreement about the value quality programs provide, but little clarity about who should take on the job, and how we should pay for it,” he said. “That’s why a partnership between proven nonprofits and our County makes so much sense. It also allows us to focus the effort on underserved youngsters.”

“Educating the next generation to be good land stewards is crucial for the future,” said Simitian. “We need to make sure young folks have a chance to develop a passion for the sciences today, so others down the line can enjoy and learn from our area’s natural environment.”