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EPI Teacher Fellowship Spotlight: 2021 Costa Rica Program

What do you get when you combine professional development, hands-on science, and a fun and curious cohort—all in incredible locations around the world? EPI’s Teacher Fellowship Program!

Thanks to EPI’s program staff and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, we were thrilled to offer our annual Teacher Fellowships this summer in Costa Rica and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. These professional development programs are designed to offer teachers a unique view into conservation, taking participants into the field to collect important wildlife conservation data.

The Fellows also learn about EPI’s approach to education through field science while gaining unique experiences and activities to take back to their classrooms. The chance to travel again and collaborate with other educators—in-person and off-Zoom—was an added bonus this year.

“The Costa Rican Fellowship I attended included the opportunity to participate in research, census, and conservation of the leatherback [sea turtle] in the Pacuare Reserve,” said high school biology and physical science teacher Drew Groves. “In the evenings, we conducted beach census, and assisted in the hatchery for this great species. During the day, activities included collaborative workshops, forest walks, canal tours, and freedom to explore the nearby surroundings.”

The 2021 Costa Rica Fellows came from all over the United States, from California to New Hampshire. Most of these educators have backgrounds in science, and some have been teaching more than 30 years. The teachers were drawn to the Fellowship for an opportunity to participate in research and conservation, connect with other educators, and find inspiration for their classroom curriculums. And of course, the location itself didn’t hurt.

“Costa Rica offered an opportunity to experience research and conservation efforts with the amazing leatherback turtle, as well as to communicate, and partner, with educators from around the country,” said Groves. “Further, I was so excited to experience the diverse flora and fauna of the Costa Rican rain forest!”

Just some of the incredible fauna spotted on the program. Photos courtesy of Drew Groves.

The Fellowship focused on leatherback sea turtle monitoring, guided by EPI research assistants and instructors, with the goal of understanding and conserving this incredible keystone species. The Fellows combed the beach at night in search of nesting leatherback females, assessing individuals and capturing eggs to bring back to the onsite hatchery.

“My favorite part was working in the hatchery at night,” said Patty Brunet, science department chair at Cypress High School in Orange County, California. “I was able to witness baby turtles climb their way out of the nest. This was the complete circle for me; from watching the mother lay her eggs, to seeing them emerge, take data measurements and escort them safely to the ocean.”

In the end, the Fellows came away with much more than the chance to engage in real field research and collaborate with other educators.

“One of the most valuable lessons I gained from this experience was learning the importance and significance of taking care of our planet and its oceans. I learned that it doesn’t matter how many miles away the species may be from where I live, the things I do at home, the products I buy, and the companies I support with my patronage, all have a significant effect on the environment globally,” explained Chattanooga, Tennessee secondary science teacher Raja Bhandari.

The best part? The Fellows hope to integrate what they learned into their own classrooms back at home, with the hopes of inspiring students and getting them excited about field science and inquiry-based learning.

“I want to get my students outside to collect data,” said Brunet. “I realized we do not need to be in a special geographical location to investigate a valid and interesting research question.”

“I am so excited to share every part of this experience with my students, so they hopefully can share in my passion for conservation and field research,” Groves adds. “I seek to open their eyes as to the importance of field study, and collecting data to better understand how to maintain balance in ecosystems. “

Despite a rigorous schedule that included late-night field research and data collection, the Fellows did manage to find some time to enjoy the incredible setting around them alongside other likeminded educators.

“We were exposed to many different aspects of Costa Rica, more behind the scenes, certainly not the tourist vacation,” recalls Brunet. “The time to reflect and experience things like the fruit stands, Julio’s on the canal, white water rafting, the crab toilet, showering without warm water all make this fellowship unlike any other and truly a memorable experience.”

“I think the entire program was magnificent, but one of the best things about it for me was having a small, intimate cohort of teachers to share the experience with,” said Bhandari. “We laughed and bonded and really got to know each other, and we shared a lot of great knowledge and ideas along the way.”

Are you an educator interested in applying for an EPI Teacher Fellowships? Applications are now open for 2022 Teacher Fellowships in Costa Rica, Yellowstone, and Baja Mexico. Learn more and apply today.

EPI is pleased to offer a variety of PD programs for teachers, including scholarships for professional development and continuing education credit from the University of Hamline. Most Fellows in the 2021 program received EPI funding to subsidize the cost of tuition.

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