Skip to content

Summer program sends Oakland’s environmental science students to Costa Rica

on March 13, 2010

Did you know that cormorants live at Lake Merritt year-round but most of the ducks and seagulls you see there are only part-time residents?

Did you know that Lake Merritt has a “dead zone,” a section of water near Children’s Fairyland that has such low oxygen levels that nothing can live there?

Did you know the very first wildlife sanctuary to be declared in the United States was at Lake Merritt because it is located on the Pacific flyway for migratory birds?


Well, if you were one of Katie Noonan’s science students at Oakland High School’s Environmental Science Academy (ESA), you would—and you might be about to learn a whole lot more about environmental science on your summer trip to Costa Rica.

Noonan and Oakland High counselor James Wallace will be taking ten students to Costa Rica this August “to tour sites of environmental importance in Costa Rica to better understand human impacts on global ecosystems,” according to their foreign travel request to the Oakland school board. The Global Explorers web site that explains the trip makes it sound way cooler: “Along the way, students will see some of Costa Rica’s amazing diversity, from parrots to howler monkeys and poison dart frogs to bats.”

Oakland High’s ESA program provides students with three years of environmental science classes, culminating in Advanced Placement Environmental Science in their senior year.

The group’s travel is covered by a grant from the AFAR Media foundation, a philanthropic organization associated with AFAR Media, and Global Explorers, a non-profit program that runs educational trips for American school children to locations around the world.  Normally, students pay to participate in these trips and the Global Explorers web site is replete with suggestions for fundraising and reasons why the travel experience is worth so much money.  The group’s new partnership with AFAR however has generated a new option called Learning Afar that will support two low-income US high schools, Yonkers High in New York, and Oakland High, right here in Oakland and just up the hill from Lake Merritt.

“We’re just all about encouraging this kind of travel,” Greg Sullivan, founder and CEO of AFAR Media said. Sullivan said it had not yet been determined how the grant will be awarded next year, whether it will be renewed for the current schools or opened up to a new application process. The school in New York was picked early, Sullivan said, but “we wanted to support a school in our home market too.”

In addition to covering the cost of the Global Explorers trip, AFAR Media, which publishes a magazine, maintains a website and plans to launch a television initiative in 2011 and a book series in 2012, is hosting a retreat for students and teachers before they travel where they will teach the kids about travel writing and photography. The students are welcome to submit any writing and photography they complete during their travel and the best submission will be published in the magazine, Sullivan said.

Only 10 ESA students from grades 10-12 will be going on the Costa Rica trip.  Noonan said that 25 applied by submitting essays, transcripts and family financial statements to Learning Afar.  Acceptance to the trip was both merit and need-based, with 9 of the 10 students qualifying as low income according to the federal government’s free and reduced lunch program.

This is the second year Noonan will be leading a student trip to Costa Rica.  The trip last year was funded by grants from Oakland High School’s School Site Council and from the Port of Oakland’s Breakfast of Champions organization.   This year’s grant makes such a significant local contribution unnecessary, but doesn’t eliminate it altogether. Learning Afar will cover the $2,000 per student needed to cover the cost of the travel, scientific tours, food and lodging in Costa Rica. Noonan estimates that her group still needs to raise about $650 in airfare per student.  They have a number of fundraisers, from car washes to educational demonstrations, planned for this spring and summer.

For Noonan, the fundraising is a necessary part of what she called “a dream” to get to bring her students on such a trip. “It’s going to open their eyes to the beauty and the importance of these places on earth that these are things that we need to protect,” Noonan said.

Noonan, who won the 2009 US Environmental Protection Agency Achievement Award, applied for the Learning Afar grant last August, writing, “too often our students do not have time or resources to view the world outside the perspective of the inner city.  They do not see the connections with other countries and the impacts of our lives on distant lands.”

In addition to her other accolades—Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Department of Energy Teacher Intern in Oceanography, member of the University of Texas’ International Polar Year Research Experience in Antarctica for Minorities team—Noonan is also one of the co-founders of ESA.  Anyone can sign up for the academy starting in the 10th grade, and no specific grade point average is required.

“The ESA kids do outperform the general population in terms of being qualified for the university,” said James Wallace, a counselor at Oakland High who focuses on ESA. “The majority meet the A-G requirements.”

By way of comparison, only 47 percent of  the Oakland High student body graduates having completed the A-G requirements, or the classes needed for a high school student to be eligible for admittance at a University of California or Cal State University campus.

Christina Phung, 17, and Diana Trung, 18, are seniors in the ESA and both are headed to college next year.  Phung is deciding between Cal State East Bay, San Francisco State and Sacramento State while Trung has already heard that she’s in at UC Davis but still has her fingers crossed for UC Berkeley.

Phung and Trung are also headed to Costa Rica this summer.

“We’re really excited!” the girls said together when asked how they felt about their upcoming trip to Costa Rica.

“We’re very thankful for [AFAR and Global Explorers] because our families are low-income families and we wouldn’t have been able to do this trip successfully without their support,” said Trung, who lives with her mother and three siblings in East Oakland.

“And we’ve never traveled before!” said Phung, who also lives with her single mother in East Oakland.

Neither girl has ever left California, they said, even though they have both participated in some of the local field trips organized by ESA.  Nevertheless, they clearly understand the global impact of pollution and other environmental hazards.  Explaining how plastic being dumped in the Pacific can be harmful to more than just the fish consuming the plastic, Trung said, “If one fish goes extinct, it’s going to continue like a chain and so the other fish is going to die too.  The other fishes that feed on that specific fish won’t have a food source, so they’re going to all die in the ocean.”

The girls both chose to be a part of ESA in the 10th grade.  Neither had heard of the program until Kevin Jordan, the other co-director of ESA,told them that the ESA program focused on science and college readiness.

During their first year in ESA, students spend a lot of time at Lake Merritt in order to participate in hands-on science classes, testing the water and systematically observing the wildlife.

Phung says the ESA program is already teaching her more about real world environmental problems than some of her peers know—for example, the role carbon dioxide pollution from truck routes through the city plays in the high asthma rate in Oakland.  “I’m pretty sure that if they knew about the issue, they would step up,” to make changes that could help protect the environment, Phung said.

Phung and a number of her classmates put some of their real world knowledge to action at last Wednesday night at the Oakland Unified School District’s board meeting to ask the board to restrict the use of Styrofoam trays and disposable water bottles used in their school’s cafeteria.  Phung said Styrofoam has been banned in Oakland, so she can’t understand why it would be allowed in Oakland’s schools.

“If the grown-ups are not taking action, I believe that the kids should take action because it’s about their future, not just adults,’” Trung said.

If you wish to donate to students’ airfare for this trip, or for more information, you can email James Wallace at Oakland High School.

Lead image: Christina Phung, 17, looks out over Lake Merritt where she learned hands on Environmental Science techniques.


  1. […] posted here: Summer program sends Oakland's environmental science students to … Tags: asthma-rate, carbon-dioxide, city-plays, her-more, her-peers, peers, role, through-the-city […]

  2. Katie Noonan on March 19, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    People can also donate to the students’ airfare fundraiser by going to the group’s online donation page at

    We are hopeful that we can reach our goal and send all of these students on the “Sustainable Tropics” educational trip to Costa Rica.

  3. Donald on May 4, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Hello Friends
    We are located in San Isidro de El General, Costa Rica, we are an Environmental and Conservation Project, our educational project is a “School Farm” where students, volunteers and visitors can participate, learn and help.
    We receive volunteers, students, environmental interns locally and from abroad. Also Eco Tour Organizations in Costa Rica and around the world are sending group of volunteers to La Gran Vista every year.
    Most of the Organizations we work with are Volunteer groups, looking for programs that help with environmental education, like at our farm.
    We would like to know if we could receive volunteers from your school or community; our web site is Please help us start a grass roots campaign, talk to your friends, family and co-workers to help us promote our organization.
    We offer ideal opportunities for graduate students and researchers to extend
    knowledge, pursue specific interests, find field work or extend opportunities for thesis material. Undergraduate students who want to pursue a career in conservation often need volunteer work and hands-on experience as a prerequisite. This experience is an excellent way to verify an interest in a specific field. La Gran Vista can provide excellent opportunities for gaining experience and making contacts at the outset of a professional career in conservation.
    We think the best way to preserve our Planet Earth is for everyone to become active and lend a helping hand to Mother Nature. We have major problems right now from green house gasses and global warming, to massive landfills that keep piling up, pesticides in our fruit, vegetables, and meat, shortages of suitable drinking water. No matter what town, country or continent you live on we are all together under the same sun during the day and the stars and moon at night. If we all recognized the issues and started to change one bad habit at a time it would an enormous effect on the planet right away, but we all have to do it together, so start today and join us in our struggle to change the course we are on. Thank you for your helps.
    We would like to hear from you very soon
    King Regards
    La Gran Vista Agroecological Farm

Oakland North welcomes comments from our readers, but we ask users to keep all discussion civil and on-topic. Comments post automatically without review from our staff, but we reserve the right to delete material that is libelous, a personal attack, or spam. We request that commenters consistently use the same login name. Comments from the same user posted under multiple aliases may be deleted. Oakland North assumes no liability for comments posted to the site and no endorsement is implied; commenters are solely responsible for their own content.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to:

Latest Posts

Scroll To Top