Teaching Kids the Real World

SPHS senior Tianhao “TH” Wei (right) shows a lizard to students during a hike alongside SPHS senior volunteer Richard Bonk in Millard Canyon Creek in Altadena.
Photos by Skye Hannah

With kids bombarded by social media and virtual reality, three seniors-to-be at South Pasadena High School are dishing out some actual reality — leading groups of city youngsters in outdoor activities and hands-on science, hoping to spark some very real interest in science and nature.

In January, Evan Kowal, Aidan Lewis and Tianhao “TH” Wei founded the Youth Outdoor Science Education (YOSE) project after receiving a $5,000 grant from the Dragon Kim Foundation.

The foundation provides service grants, training and a mentor to support students who wish to create and manage summer programs that impact their communities. It is in honor of Dragon Kim, a talented musician, athlete and scholar who wanted to help others before he passed away at the age of 14.

In YOSE, the three SPHS upper classmen guide children ages 6-11 in hands-on science activities, interacting with live animals and going on nature hikes to learn about ecology, biology and conservation.

Kowal, Lewis and Wei have enjoyed hiking outdoors in Southern California since they were young and met at Marengo Elementary. The opportunity of seeing the natural world up close and personal inspired them to become interested in science, both in and out of the classroom.

The team combined a shared passion for science and childhood education to create YOSE. In fifth grade, they attended Outdoor Science School (OSS), and as sophomores they started volunteering with Families Forward Learning Center, a low-income preschool in Pasadena, for a school project. They soon came to learn that many children don’t have the ability to explore the outdoors and learn hands-on science.

“We realized that these kids, a lot of them didn’t have the opportunity to go outside and learn science, so we really wanted to start that and give them the opportunity we had when we were younger,” said Kowal.

SPHS seniors Aidan Lewis (from left), Evan Kowal and Tianhao “TH” Wei started the Youth Outdoor Science Education (YOSE) project to connect kids with science and nature.

After receiving the grant, the group was paired with mentor Paul Molloy, CEO of Clearflow and previous CEO of VasoNova Inc. Molloy helped the group form a mission statement and organize the project with considerations for how many children would be served, resources needed and time constraints.

“Initially when everything was just a jumble of things and we didn’t know what to do in the beginning, Paul really brought it together,” said Wei. “He really guided us in the beginning of how to plan things and how to run a business.”

Wei called the process “an MBA in a nutshell.” After Molloy’s initial assistance, the team took on the coordination of budgeting, spending, booking of activities and planning of hikes. They also engaged in fundraising for additional expenses and said they were grateful for the support of numerous community members who wanted to help make the hikes possible.

For their first session, from July 15-19, the group partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Pasadena and coordinated with organizations to bring in live animal demonstrations with boa constrictors, lizards, a camel and a zebra for elementary school aged children. They worked with more than 90 kids in introducing them to interactive science activities, including tinsel orbs that floated with static electricity and creating catapults out of popsicle sticks.

“I could see that even from a young age, the kids were very innovative,” said Lewis. “Even when they didn’t know the vocabulary of mainstream science, they were still very interested and innovative.”

The second session. from July 22-29, involved two daytime hikes plus three classroom and local outdoor days. Alongside volunteer adult supervisors, the SPHS students partnered with Families Forward Learning Center to lead 20 children age 6-8 on a hike at Millard Canyon Creek in Altadena and El Matador Beach in Malibu. YOSE led its last session July 29-Aug. 2 on the same hikes with 9- to 11-year-olds.

“We taught the kids basic ecology and biology with the natural backdrop of amazing California native animals and plants as our helper,” said Kowal.

In working with Families Forward Learning Center with the outdoor opportunities, YOSE asked the children to draw what they wanted their environment to look like in a decade. Wei recalled that on the first day, the kids primarily drew unrealistic scenes, including one with the wrestler John Cena surrounded by Pokemon. After a week of hiking and being immersed in the outdoors, they were asked to draw their ideas again.

“They actually drew real nature this time,” said Wei. “I was really impressed.”

Looking to the future, the YOSE leaders said they hope to expand their mission and provide summer activities again next year. They are open to additional volunteers and others who would like to join in their mission of sharing the intersection of science and nature with children in need of it.

“I definitely think just being outside really helps these kids,” said Kowal. “Nature is kind of the best classroom, because you can really see the things we’re talking about actually in person and just see physically how science applies to it.”

For more information and to volunteer, visit yose.dragonkimfoundation.org.