Originally published at Norton Daily News.
For any high school science teacher a textbook may be an excellent resource, but nothing compares to a real world, hands-on experience. After spending a week in La Paz, Mexico studying sea turtles, Newton High School Biology teacher Courtney Wolken was struck by how much larger the animals were in real life. Some of the green sea turtles Wolken and the other biologists measured during the trip weighed more than 200 pounds.
“You don’t realize how large some of these organisms are until you see them up close,” Wolken said. “You see them in a textbook, but when you get to see them in their natural habitat it’s pretty amazing.”
Wolken was one of 11 teachers across the United States selected to go on the eight-day trip, which was organized by Ecology Project International. After applying last fall, Wolken found out during the high school’s winter break that she’d been selected from a pool of hundreds of candidates. EPI is a field science and conservation organization that partners scientists with local and international students and educators in ecologically critical environments in Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Galapagos, Belize, Baja Mexico, Yellowstone and Hawaii. Calling the project “life-changing” Wolken said she’d encourage other teachers to apply for the fellowship.
“What interested me about this nonprofit was the opportunity to participate in authentic science research and how conservation-student-teacher partnerships are formed,” Wolken said.
Since 2005, EPI has worked with more than 10,000 students in its Baja Mexico program, the majority of them local to the project site. Rachel Caldwell, Communications Manager for EPI, said the fellowship is designed to give teachers who participate a chance to use their experiences on the trip to enhance their classrooms as well as create opportunities for local conservation efforts in their communities.
“During the Fellowship, Wolken and the other teachers had a chance to experience the field course for themselves as well as gain skills and resources they can bring back to the classroom with them,” Caldwell said.
In eight days, Wolken and the other teachers partnered with local conservationists in Mexico to assist in a catch and release program for sea turtles, with an emphasis on how to incorporate what they’d learned into their classrooms. The group camped on the beach near Magdalena Bay, practicing ecology sound, “leave no trace” camping. Every morning they headed to the beach to monitor the local turtle population as they came ashore to forage. While this may have been Wolken’s first international research trip, she’s hoping it won’t be her last.
“Honestly, I’m still processing the trip, it was one of those life-changing types of projects that I encourage any field research scientist to apply for one of these trips,” Wolken said.
While she isn’t sure yet what direction she wants to take in terms of local conservation efforts Wolken said she’d like to continue the work her class has done at Cardinal Creek. After leading the efforts to rename the former Sewer Creek Wolken’s biology classes continue to work on monitoring the creek’s water quality.
“I look forward to starting some local conservation projects that provide a partnership between students and the community,” Wolken said.