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Kimberly Coutinho hovered over the wave-battered tide pool in a squat, peering above her slim tortoiseshell sunglasses into the water.

Amidst swaying clumps of sea grass, the 12-year-old spotted her salt-water prize.

"I found a sea anemone that's open," she said. She jammed a finger in the squishy flesh, which recoiled. She seemed surprised. "It's soft."

Kimberly and dozens of other seventh-graders from Adams Middle School in Richmond explored the misty shores of Pillar Point near Half Moon Bay as part of a program run by the Berkeley Natural History Museums Consortium.

Exploring California Biodiversity, funded by a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, brings science to life for youngsters, said Adams science teacher Peg Dabel.

"This makes the whole thing real," she said. "We read about these things in the science book. And we have lovely pictures in the science book. But here, they're crawling across the bottom of the little tide pool and the starfish has just eaten the clam. They can see what's happened."

The program brings together UC Berkeley graduate students and elementary, middle or high school classes. They hold in-class demonstrations, help with instruction and lead trips that showcase the state's collection of flora and fauna.

Last year, they ventured to a forested UC research station at Sagehen Creek near Truckee. Monet Smith, 14, still remembers setting the small animal-friendly traps that allowed her to view wildlife up close and personal.


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"I learned about flying squirrels," she said.

In late May, they visited Pillar Point, an aquatic world close by yet foreign to the majority of Adams students.

"More than half of these kids haven't been to a tide pool," said graduate student Nicole VanderSal, one of the trip leaders. "They've seen these things maybe on television, but for them to know this is in their backyard is really special."

While Kimberly became acquainted with the sea anemones, classmate Linda Orduno handled a live crab for the first time.

Joaquin De La Torre, 13, saw a purple sea urchin up close.

"It might bite you," warned Adams teacher Mike Kunz, who explained that the prickly echinoderms carve a niche for themselves by burrowing into soft rock with their tough spines.

As the day warmed up, mist evaporated from the shallow pools. Sea grass waved with each lap of the water. Mats of coral-colored algae mottled the shore where students traipsed, occasionally stopping to scoop up a crab or seaweed with a clear plastic tub for observation.

Kimberly said the beach bore little resemblance to those near her old home in Brazil.

South American beaches have more clay in the sand, she said. The seaside comes dotted with thatched umbrellas and sidewalk stalls shilling grilled shrimp.

"There weren't any flowers like that," she said, pointing to the purple ice flower blooms huddled in the sand near the shoreline.

At Pillar Point, even the rocks teem with life.

Graduate student Scott Fay hoisted a small boulder riddled with shells and pointed to some speckles of white crust.

"These things here? They're called bryozoans," Fay said. "They're weird animals."

Though they look like flat barnacles -- which as arthropods actually are related to shrimp and insects -- bryozoans claim no real relatives in the animal kingdom. The spineless calcium-secreting cells live in their own phylum, a small but distinct twig on the branch of life.

After 1 p.m., Dabel called the kids back to shore. Weary from their waterlogged sojourn, they sat and wrote about the trip.

Kimberly's passages read like the back of a postcard.

"I saw a lot of sea creatures. Also, the beach was really fun," she wrote. "The salty sea air is enjoyable. Well go[t] to go. Greetings from Half Moon Bay."

Shirley Dang covers education. Reach her at 925-977-8418 or sdang@cctimes.com.