by Jim Hight
Photos by Brandi Easter
On a spring morning, a student's mind wanders far from his science class to a choice fishing spot on the Klamath River. He can picture himself there, reeling in a spinning lure, waiting for a dark shape to swim through the blue-green water toward his line.
Daydreaming in school is nothing new, but turning fantasies into good grades is something that can really happen at the Eureka High School's Oikos Academy, an experimental program where students research topics of their own choosing.
B.J. Susich picked spinning lures.
He started with a half-dozen spinners that he and other fishers judged to work best in most conditions. Then he pursued one question with single-minded drive: What makes these spinners better than others?
He conducted phone interviews with lure designers around the country. He plagued chemists at DuPont with questions about paint pigments. To test separately every element that makes up a lure -- metal, finish, color, shape, etc. -- he created his own prototypes, then ran these through a homemade aquarium, measuring sound waves and light photons.
The results may not be the Holy Grail of freshwater fishing, but Susich thinks they helped him create the best lure he's ever used. A side benefit was winning fifth place at the Northern California-Nevada Science Symposium in March, for which he was rewarded with a free trip last month to a national high school science conference at Duke University in North Carolina.
The program that enabled Susich to take such a remarkable voyage into independent learning was created three years ago by two veteran EHS teachers, Bill Crichton and Bill Schaser.
The unlikely pair -- Crichton teaches art, Schaser science -- were friends, and they had partnered for many years as advisers to student class officers. They also shared the belief that learning shouldn't be confined to 50-minute class periods and traditional academic methods.
Schaser, in particular, had a reputation for doing things "out of the box," in his own words. He challenged his advanced students to launch independent research projects because he thought that was the best way to learn. Schaser favored "interdisciplinary" research efforts covering not just science, but economic and social issues. For example, two of Schaser's 1993 seniors, Dara Grantham and Luke Seemann, prepared an in-depth report on converting local pulp mills from using virgin trees to using waste paper.
Schaser's approach had stirred interest among fellow teachers, as well as Humboldt State University professors. And in 1993, when new state funds for alternative education became available through competitive grants, Crichton convened a group of teachers, HSU professors and community folks to brainstorm ideas for new programs at EHS.
The name Oikos (pronounced "EE-kose") was suggested by HSU Biology Professor Emeritus Jack Yarnall to symbolize balanced scholarship in a town divided over environmental issues. "The English transliteration is 'eco,'" said Yarnall. "It means 'home' or 'house' in Greek, and it's the root word for both 'ecology' and 'economy.'"
Using Schaser's teaching approach Oikos would break down the walls that separate school from community, the group determined; the key to the curriculum would be independent research projects where students investigated real-life issues.
The proposal was accepted by the state, and the school received funds for a three-year demonstration project run by Schaser and Crichton. They selected a third teacher, former bank manager Vernon Skoglund, and Oikos opened in 1994.
The state grant paid for computer equipment, extra costs associated with student projects -- like B.J. Susich's long-distance phone calls -- and smaller classes that allow more contact between students and teachers. Enrollment began with about 60 juniors, and it has hovered between 120 and 150 juniors and seniors since then.
In the junior year, Oikos students are "weaned off ... the normal school idea where you're told what you need to know, memorize it, take a test on it and forget it," explained Susich.
They learn how to define research goals, get the information and contacts they need, prepare questions, write letters, interview sources.
For their senior projects, students work alone, in pairs or in larger groups. They pick topics in which they are personally interested. The teachers review their ideas to assess whether the project will present an appropriate level of difficulty: too simple and they won't be challenged enough; too complex and they won't get very far.
For the rest of the year, teachers are there to guide rather than instruct. They check in with students periodically to see if they're on track, and they provide help and suggestions when asked. But otherwise the students work on their own.
The economy-ecology framework is often interpreted loosely as students pursue the topics that inspire them. For examples:
But other projects take on ecology-environment issues head on.
Madeline Porter, Roshawn Beere and Caroline Hallmans turned their passion for recycling into a school-wide paper recycling program in 1995. Other students have continued it, and last year Maggie Walser, Elizabeth Allen and Elizabeth Micks took the recycling show on the road, presenting lessons and recycling kits to fourth-graders around the city.
And in what may be Oikos' most ambitious research effort to date, students who were alarmed at the decline of salmon runs in the Klamath River basin spent three years studying that vast watershed, from its coastal estuary to its tributaries in southern Oregon.
Their 55-page report -- "The Klamath River Basin: Interconnections within an Ecosystem" -- combines in-depth research with an easy-to-read style, explaining, for example, in concise, clear language what "pH" is, how agricultural runoff increases pH in the water and why the resulting algae blooms harm aquatic life.
More than 20 students participated in the research at various points, but six followed it through to the end.
The researchers began by interviewing local experts -- 40 people by their own count -- and reading books and reports. Then with help from Resource Conservation District staffer Paula Yoon and others they traveled throughout the watershed for three summers in a row.
On these excursions they met with tribal fishers, foresters, cattle ranchers, farmers, fish biologists and others with a stake in the streams and rivers. They took photos and camped every night in a different area. "We wanted the big picture," said Moss Bittner, a 1995 graduate now in his second year at Harvard University.
Coming from Humboldt County where the decline in salmon runs was an economic disaster for salmon trollers and their families, the student researchers didn't always receive warm receptions in the upper-basin agricultural communities.
In Tulelake, Calif., the cattlemen's association invited them for a meal, but as the affair proceeded it began to look like the ranchers would have the students for lunch.
"They were pretty hostile to the students because they thought they didn't know what reality was like up there," remembers biologist Bob Wunner, a volunteer who accompanied the group.
"We were tempted to jump in but we thought it best just to listen and then talk about it later among ourselves," remembers one of the researchers, EHS senior Sara Gladding.
Throughout their investigation the students kept their ears and minds open, searching for the balance embodied in the Oikos concept. In the process they learned how to design, organize and conduct a huge research project. They learned how to ask emotionally charged questions without being offensive. And they learned about themselves.
For Gladding, the project fired an intense interest in ecology and an awareness of her own learning style. "I learn better and faster through independent work rather than in a structured classroom," she said. She's satisfying both needs by enrolling at Friends' World College in New York, a hotbed of independent study and environmental awareness.
The Klamath River project led to a three-week field trip to Eastern Russia where the students' environmental analysis methods were tested -- by invitation -- on the heavily polluted Volga River.
Gladding remembers her host family celebrating her birthday with piroshki, tea and sweet bread, and she calls the whole Russian adventure "one of the best things I've ever done. I used to be a lot shyer, and it forced me to come out of my shell."
Another Oikos group traveled to Bath, England, last month to study British politics and health care. And a trip to China may be in the works.
Closer to home, Oikos students have won several awards. Susich and Stuart Chinn (who studied the insulating qualities of wasps' nests) were invited to Duke for the national science conference. The 1993 recycling project won a $16,500 prize from American Express. And scores of students have landed choice internships and college scholarships as a result, in part, of their Oikos projects.
Despite its obvious successes, Oikos is not for everyone. Many students go through a tough adjustment period before they're off and running with their projects. And others never make the leap to self-directed learning. "It won't work for everyone," said Gladding. "You don't have to be a genius but you have to be motivated."
Oikos in its current form is ending this year as its three-year state grant runs out. The high school has decided to carry on a smaller Oikos-like program as part of Schaser's and Crichton's classes; 20 to 30 students will be involved.
Crichton said he believes the project-based learning approach will spread in the school. "The movement that's taking place in our strategic planning is positive toward those types of things."
But keeping the Oikos concept alive will not be easy. Without the funding for smaller class sizes, it will be more difficult to keep the student-directed projects going. "To bring students along in this project-oriented, hands-on approach requires an incredible amount of instructor time," said Yarnall of HSU, who advised Crichton and Schaser in the creation of Oikos.
And operating such a "no-borders" curriculum within a traditional school structure takes a lot of extra attention. The state grant paid Crichton to be the part-time administrator, "running interference, going to meetings and solving problems," he said.
Without an administrator, the flexible scheduling and other special requirements of Oikos may not be possible. "The business of turning people loose educationally was the easy part," said Yarnall. "The hard part is making sure that you solved everybody's concerns and met all the other issues within the bureaucracy, things that don't fit in a 50-minute class period."
Without more solid status within the school, Oikos may wither away after Schaser and Crichton retire. Schaser says he'll probably "go on to another life beyond teaching" in two years; 33-year veteran Crichton says he's not sure when he'll retire.
Oikos's strongest partisans move on every year as they graduate. If they had their way, the program would be expanding instead of shrinking. "I'd try to make the whole school that way," said Susich.