SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Science class aboard a catamaran cruising California's Monterey Bay in search of sea otters and kelp forests while the captain points out jellyfish and seeks kids' help in navigating the choppy waters isn't an experience soon forgotten.
They're the kind of classes that can produce budding marine biologists and future conservationists, educators say.
The latest report from Watsonville, Calif., firm Applied Survey Research about the academic impact of the 13-year-old O'Neill Sea Odyssey program shows that the free, ocean-based class is especially useful to low-income students, many of whom have never seen the ocean before stepping foot on to the 65-foot boat docked at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor.
"They usually come here with a lower understanding of ocean concepts," Executive Director Dan Haifley said. "By the time they leave, they've pretty much caught up with their peers."
The report is an annual assessment of the program — based largely on questions answered by teachers who've participated — which allows the nonprofit Sea Odyssey to show potential donors that the classes can make a real difference in kids' education, Haifley said.
The free outdoor class, originally created by famed wetsuit maker Jack O'Neill in the 1990s, saw more than 5,000 students from all over the state last year, though the majority came from Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Monterey counties.
About half of the kids who participate are Latino, speak English as a second language and receive free or reduced price lunches at school, the report said.
Santa Cruz City Schools Trustee Cynthia Hawthorne said the Sea Odyssey program is an asset for the region, something that can "literally change students' lives forever" and lead to future studies or careers in marine science.
"With schools so focused on math and English and lost science resources, this is counteracting that," Hawthorne said. "It's a great equalizer and great way to reach everybody. My own two kids really loved it."
According to the survey, teachers said their students had "learned a lot" in the three-hour course that includes time at sea as well as a short period inside the Odyssey's classroom located at the harbor.
The Sea Odyssey's emphasis this past year has been on teaching children about the impact of plastic on the ocean.
Education Coordinator Laura Barnes pulled out a glass jar containing a sample of what was found inside plankton a class pulled from the ocean on a recent outing.
The jar was clouded with what looked like confetti, tiny pieces of plastic ingested by the plankton.
"When you throw away plastic, this is where it ends up — in the ocean — even if you don't live on the coast," Barnes said. "Plastic lasts a long time and breaks down into biological poison. In the ocean, it just sits there and decomposes and releases chemicals."
O'Neill Sea Odyssey begins taking applications in May from teachers interested in exposing their students to the program in the following school year. Spots go fast with nearly 100 applications coming in the first day, Barnes said. The Odyssey's only criteria for classes to participate is to complete a community service project after attending the program.