Headlands Institute

Where Science is Strictly Kids' Stuff

When the summer fog is so thick that THE brightest thing on Rodeo Beach is the goofy yellow grin on a SpongeBob SquarePants backpack, Sam Drucker knows it’s time for the deer joke.

“What,” asks Drucker, speaking to the dozen kids in his keep for the day, “do you call a deer with no eyes?” No answer. “No idea-rrr,” replies Drucker, drawling out those R’s.

Rim shot. And the Headlands Institute kicks off another day of teaching natural science to kids by any means necessary. If it takes cornball jokes to get them off the Game Boy and onto the beach, then bring on the corn.

Fortunately for the kids, Drucker is a better marine biologist than he is a comedian because, all joking aside, science is serious stuff at Headlands.

For 30 years Headlands, a nonprofit organization located in a nondescript former barracks at Fort Cronkhite, has been teaching young people the difference between a mollusk and a mammal, and doing so in a setting that is the envy of science teachers everywhere: the Marin Headlands. The organization is part of the tripartite Yosemite National Institutes, which has similar programs in Yosemite and Olympic parks.

The fifth- and sixth-graders on Rodeo Beach this morning are just a few of the 10,000 or so local elementary and high-school students who participate in a Headlands event each year, some coming for weeklong sessions that focus on the environment, others for leadership mentoring, and some, like this group, for a summer day program called Coastal Camp.

During their day, the Coastal Camp kids hunted for pebbles of carnelian (a russet-colored semiprecious stone hidden amidst the sand on Rodeo Beach), examined the rotting remains of a common murre, compared sea otters to their river-dwelling cousins, built sandcastles, engaged in a kelp war and constructed an elaborate dam on South Rodeo Beach that proved no more effective against the flow of a tidal creek than the levees in New Orleans were against Katrina—thus providing valuable lessons in both engineering and humans’ relationship with the natural world.

Then it was time for lunch.

Amid it all, Drucker acted as science teacher, referee, cheerleader, psychologist and outdoor fashion consultant (for a girl who showed up to hike over dune and dale wearing flimsy flats).
Drucker—and the more than 20 similar educators who work at Headlands full time—are like “Mr. Rogers with a pair of hiking boots,” says Aaron Rich, the organization’s marketing director. Making science fun is “really the key to the learning out here,” says Rich. “Looking for bugs in a pond is really exciting to kids. Less and less these days, kids have a chance to just be out in the natural world and explore and this is an opportunity for them to do it in a structured, safe way.

“We bring kids out from around the Bay Area who have never seen the ocean before,” he says. “For a lot of students, no matter where they’re from, it’s such a new experience just being able to sit on the ground on the first day is a big deal.”

Sitting on the ground—yeah, that is a good thing when you’re kid. Close your eyes. Picture it. The ground, the night sky, the blazing campfire. The voice of your camp counselor, saying:

“Have you heard the one about the no-eyed, no-legged deer?” Still no idea-rrr!

More information about Headlands Institute at yni.org/hi.