Jay Steven Vavra

Resource utilization and conservation: the San Diego Bay
11th and 12th grade Biotechnology classes

When High Tech High School biotechnology teacher Jay Vavra wanted to teach his students about the importance of the coexistence of resource utilization and conservation, he ran into a bit of a hurdle: how to make an important series of environmental concepts resonate with a group of urban youth relatively unfamiliar with them. His solution: have his class interview more than 30 scientists and environmental professionals on a topic most students held near and dear to their hearts – the San Diego Bay.

In addition to the interviews, and with the help of a $5,000 Student Achievement Grant from the NEA Foundation, Mr. Vavra’s students conducted original biology research, including study related to the plankton of the South Bay Salt Work and productivity of mussels and aquaculture in the Bay. After completing their research and transcribing and editing their interviews, students began assembling what would eventually become "San Diego Bay: A Story of Exploration and Restoration," a book distinctive in its approach to ecology through oral history.

The process of assembling the book, though arduous, proved to be incredibly rewarding for students. Extensive revisions occurred, with students providing peer review via "warm/cool" feedback. Student editors then completed the review process, prepared copy layout, and pagination. To accompany the book, the students created a documentary, combining video footage of interviewees and their original research with multimedia and graphic arts skills acquired in art classes.

After completing the book and sending it to press, the students hosted public events to present their findings. These "Presentations of Learning" enabled students to educate parents, community members, and even experts in the field of their findings. To cap it off, Mr. Vavra was invited to the 2007 National Social Studies Conference, where he and his students presented their findings. High Tech High’s work eventually caught the interest of local media and has been praised as a model of project-based learning and community-based education by figures such as Bill Gates and former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez. The curriculum has proven to be so unique and sought after that it is now available on High Tech High’s website.