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Salton Basin Living Laboratory Field Trip Program

Since 1954, when the Desert Protective Council (DPC) was conceived around a campfire, it has worked to educate the public about the magnificent western deserts. In the words of Edmund Jaeger, a well known founding member and for 33 years a Professor of Zoology at Riverside City College, “…I have always felt that the most important thing I could do for my students was to get them to supplement their indoor classroom and laboratory experiences with direct contact with Nature in the out-of-doors.”

In 2001, the DPC received a substantial settlement from a court case involving a BLM land exchange, enabling the creation of the huge eastern Imperial County, CA Mesquite Landfill. To create a lasting legacy for conservation in Imperial Valley this money was used to establish The Mesquite Fund. Early and frequent recipients of the fund included elementary and high school teachers needing support for student field trips to natural and cultural sites within this region.

Through Jaeger’s desert wildlife books and field guides, students learned about the richness of the Colorado Desert. Today, however, classroom instruction on the Colorado Desert ecosystems, especially the unique Salton Basin system, is lacking. DPC decided that ‘place based’ science curriculum would be a good investment – to help students become familiar with their home region and start thinking like desert scientists before going out to explore as naturalists in the field. The Salton Basin Living Laboratory (SBLL) Program began in 2008 to provide students in grades 4, 5, and 6 with a standards-based science and social science curriculum. The SBLL Program also provides the local context for the state adopted California Education and the Environment Curriculum (EEI).

Between 2008 and the end of 2012, the DPC has allocated approximately $200,000 to SBLL covering a wide range of expenses, including: the cost for the development, testing, and editing of curriculum materials (this was carried out by Pat Flanagan, desert naturalist and educator for the SBLL Program, in collaboration with Judy Ramirez), two-day teacher training workshops and three two-hour support workshops per school year, plus bus transportation for student field trips ($1,200 each trip) to Anza Borrego Desert State Park and to Imperial County desert wetlands. More than 1,000 El Centro and Calexico school district 4th-through 6th grade students have participated in DPC’s field trip program.

The Salton Basin Living Laboratory Program

The Program includes curriculum materials for grades 4, 5, and 6 plus teacher training and support, and field trips. Field trips include the New River Wetland (Grade 4), Anza Borrego Desert (Grade 5), and The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (Grade 6).

Book 1: Introductory Activities

Activity 1: The EcoMap©

This activity introduces the core of the program -- the unique EcoMap© graphic organizer. The EcoMap© allows students to visualize how the structural or abiotic elements of the ecosystem interact with the functioning biotic world through continuous feedback (cause and effect) loops. Starting from their own experiences, teachers and students learn how to build the map from its simplest beginning Level 1 to the completed Level 3. All the elements are defined and referenced to the Salton Basin, grounding students in the geography, geology and natural history of their home place.

Levels 2 and 3 are shown above. Vocabulary differences between the two levels allow for grade level instruction.


The EcoMap© and nine additional maps, three of them original to this curriculum, display the different and useful ways to organize and visualize information. The ability to construct graphic organizers and read maps contributes to development of critical thinking skills.

Activity 2: Exploring the Salton Basin

This activity provides background on the earliest explorers of the Salton Basin and then focuses on the discoveries by the 1853 Williamson Expedition Pacific Railway Survey with William P. Blake as the geologist and the later 44 years of work (1891-1935) by Godfrey Sykes, which ends after the formation of the Salton Sea and the settlement of Imperial Valley. Original maps by Blake and Sykes are used contrasting how these two early scientists depicted their discoveries.

Book 2: Salton Basin Field Trip: Anza-Borrego Desert A Trip Through Time (Grades 5)

In the classroom students explore the geologic history of the Salton Basin guided by the EcoMap©, descriptions of the changing ecology through the epochs. Students visualize the changes using the nine scenes contained in Illustrations from Fossil Treasures of the Anza-Borrego Desert. During their field trip student teams present their reports on their ancient landscape ecosystems while standing on the appropriate geologic formation or adjacent to one of the Breceda scultpure of the prehistoric mega fauna in Borrego Valley www.galletameadows.com. Students visit the Anza-Borrego Paleontological Lab to see real fossils as the docents lead them through the disciplines of searching, discovery, preparation, and curation. There is time to explore the Visitor Center exhibits and walk in the desert. During the bus trip students make a number of observations, including listing all the things William Blake would not have seen during his 1853 five week exploration.

Participant Feedback

Click the image on the left to read about students at IVHSA and their SBLL experience.

Related SBLL Activities

The Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program (IVROP) has an ongoing field trip program, including classroom visits both before and after the trips to the New River Wetland Project and the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The SBLL Program has a partnership with IVROP to develop materials that support participation by SBLL teachers and students in wetland field trips. Pat Flanagan (DPC consultant for SBLL Program) confers with the Refuge and IVROP to develop materials. She also provides training to IVROP staff. This partnership will benefit all students, not just SBLL students, visiting the two locations. Materials developed for the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge will include field activities in a format suitable for use by families visiting the refuge.

Community Partnerships

  • Richard Sanchez, El Centro Unified School District Science Center
  • Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program (IVROP), field trips to New River Wetlands Project and Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge with pre & post trip classroom visits.
  • Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge – includes annual support to IVROP for bus transportation and collaboration in preparation of new field trip materials for SBLL students.
  • LuAnn Thompson, California State Parks PORTS Program (Parks On Line Resource for Teachers and Students) – program outreach to all SBLL schools with distance learning technical ability.
  • Docents and Staff, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Paleontology Laboratory

For questions and to receive more detailed information about DPC’s Salton Basin Living Laboratory Field trip program, call or email:

Terry Weiner, Imperial County Projects Coodinator
(619) 342-5524