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A Science Teacher’s Pilgrimage

Aaron Ettinger, a middle school science teacher from Ohio, shares his experience from EPI's Professional Development course in the Galápagos Islands. We love hearing our course participants' perspectives! If you have a story to share, contact to learn more about how you can get involved.

How does a giant tortoise get to an island if it can’t swim? I asked myself this question on a voyage that took several planes, boats, and buses. Nearly 3,000 miles and 2 days later, I found myself humbly standing before The Darwin Research Center in the Galápagos Islands. It is with privilege and gratitude that I share my journey to this sacred place. From a young age, I desired to visit the iconic archipelago and learn more about conservation science. My opportunity to travel to the Galápagos became possible through coursework for my Master of Arts in Teaching Biological Science at Miami University. Throughout my journey, I experienced the beauty of wildlife, the threat of human impact, and the importance of community. Reflecting on my adventure has rejuvenated my perspective on education and conservation. Moving forward, I hope to spark passion and empower learners to take action in protecting local ecosystems and those around the world. 

On the trip, my peers and I were led by passionate and knowledgeable guides and instructors. We learned and practiced respectful observation techniques for the unique species and habitats found on the Galápagos Islands. While visiting Tortuga Bay, I went snorkeling for the first time; it was mind-blowing to see underwater so clearly. We explored tidal pools with rocky terrain that housed countless fish species. I observed sea urchins and a tiger snake eel. The coloration of these species had a wide range from vibrant to earthy and even translucent. Checking the horizon, I noticed black feet and a tail serpentining just below the surface of the water. Raising my head and removing my goggles, I was delighted to see marine iguanas entering and exiting the water. In a nearby mangrove, pelicans perched, pruning in the late afternoon light. Below them, a striated heron hunted for dinner.

These moments, including encounters with penguins, sea lions, green sea turtles, giant tortoises, and blue-footed boobies were only possible on the islands, as many of the species are unique to the archipelago. My experience was inspiring and I understood that this privilege came with responsibility. We must be mindful and remember that our presence has the potential to impact animals’ behaviors and habitats; giving them plenty of space and leaving no trace is a necessity.

In addition to observing wildlife, we also had the opportunity to take part in microplastic pollution research. Despite being renowned and isolated, the Galápagos are still subject to the threats of human impact. Anne Geuzou, an advocate for conservation and giant tortoise expert, joined us at Tortuga Bay. She taught us about research involving microplastics and efforts to understand their impacts on the ecosystem.

While surveying the beach, I was alarmed by the amount of microplastics found in the sand. Earlier in the trip we found the presence of plastic in Giant Galápagos Tortoise dung. Our observations on Tortuga Bay supported findings of plastics in aquatic and bird species as well.

On a global scale, microplastics and waste management are a crisis. Many of the plastics found on this beach had origins in other countries and parts of the world. This means that the Archipelago faces yet another stressor on biodiversity due to human impact. Fortunately, we can do our part on a global scale. Reducing plastic use, especially single-use plastics, and continuing to reuse and recycle is a feasible step for anyone looking to do their part. 

Throughout our travels, my classmates and I were able to meet locals who were actively leading environmental conservation efforts. In Puerto Ayora, we were greeted by a student club named “The Molas." With their teacher, these teens gave us a tour of the city, sharing their perspectives of growing up in the Galápagos. The Molas have taken responsibility for spreading awareness about the importance of wildlife on the islands and how to cohabitate with it. We visited The Molas’ public art gallery themed on plastic pollution and learned about how they participate in cleaning up the city and encourage others to manage waste and resources.

The students impressed me with their commitment to the cause; these youth are passionate about where they are from and care deeply about conserving it for the future. It was encouraging to see a younger generation charismatic about the environment and working together. This has motivated me to find opportunities for my students to engage with their communities. I hope that learning about environmental issues in their own areas will empower them to take action and make a positive impact.

As our course wrapped up back in Puerto Ayora, we spent time reflecting on our experience. The animals and habitats I saw fueled my passion for wildlife. As an educator, I want to share this passion and encourage others to spend time observing nature. Whether through travel expeditions or locally, I believe that observing wildlife in person allows us as humans to feel more connected to nature. Strengthening these connections could contribute to a shared moral obligation to protect the environment. I hope to help my students develop a respect for nature in their own backyards. If we engage with the environment near our homes with the same delicate enthusiasm as a place like the Galápagos, we can influence conservation in our communities.

My greatest takeaway from the course was seeing how much the people from the Galápagos care about the ecology and history of their islands. The efforts of those working on the ground level were so impressive to me. The day-to-day work of The Molas, farmers, scientists, invasive species crews, and even our guides. These are the individuals spreading awareness and practicing sustainable lifestyles to conserve the biodiversity of their homes.

As tourists and students like myself continue to have the privilege of visiting the Galápagos, we must learn from the community members. Their work is the reason I was able to see Giant tortoises roaming freely and why I was able to swim with marine iguanas. Human impact continues to threaten these creatures.

We should recognize the delicate balance between biodiversity, research, ecotourism, and community in the Galápagos a model for conservation. Listening to experts, conserving resources, managing our waste, and respecting nature are all things we can continue to do as a global community to protect the natural environments of our planet.

I am honored to play a part now, as someone who has been enriched by the community and awe-inspiring environment of the Galápagos, I can now communicate those lessons and passion to young learners- sending them out to make impacts here and around the world.


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