Riverside teacher snorkeled with sharks, studied turtles during Baja fellowship

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Riverside teacher snorkeled with sharks, studied turtles during Baja fellowship

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Originally published in The Press-Enterprise

As a teacher, Summer Davidson believes that learning never stops.

So when she heard about a fellowship that would give her a chance to learn more about ecology and conservation and pass that on to her students, Davidson, who teaches science and English at Dehesa Charter School in Riverside, knew she had to apply.

Davidson, 40, spent eight days in Baja, Mexico, in March on a teacher fellowship that included snorkeling with whale sharks, climbing sand dunes and helping researchers collect data on sea turtles.

“I love learning, and I feel that it is fun to learn in community,” the Riverside resident said. “That’s why I love teaching because I am able to learn in community with kids.”

The Montana-based Ecology Project International, a field science and conservation organization, awarded the fellowship. The nonprofit group connects scientists with local and international students and educators in ecologically critical environments. Besides Baja, it has programs in Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Galapagos, Belize, Yellowstone and Hawaii.

In Baja, Davidson learned about the importance of sea turtle conservation. She and other participants worked with a conservation group called Grupo Tortuguero, which is Spanish for Land of Turtles Group, monitoring sea turtles for 24 hours.

“We went out with them and set nets, and every two hours, we would monitor for any in the net,” she said. “We would bring those to shore and do biometrics. We weighed them, collected data and tagged them. It was pretty cool to get hands-on access to the wildlife like that.”

The Jurupa Valley High School alumna even got to help name some of the turtles, including a rather large one weighing over 100 kilograms — more than 220 pounds — that the group dubbed Big Bertha.

The wife and mother of two said she plans to take what she learned on the trip and weave it into lesson plans for her middle school science and high school environmental science classes. Davidson added that she is a big proponent of project-based learning.

Last year, her environmental science students not only studied the Santa Ana River in class, but they toured it and talked to experts about its history and purpose.

These kinds of experiences help deepen the connection for students to what they learn in the classroom, Davidson said.

More than 200 educators have taken Ecology Project International fellowship courses since the program started six years ago, according to Rachael Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the organization. In 2018, 58 teachers will participate in the courses. More than 250 applied.

“These fellowships are a great opportunity for us to work directly with teachers, to see them engage with our curriculum and have that two-way learning process,” Caldwell said. “We are looking for teachers who are ready to dive in and engage.”

The idea is to empower the next generation of conservation leaders.

“We can’t reach a whole generation ourselves, no matter how big we get, so reaching these teachers … is why we do what we do,” she said. “They sort of have a ripple effect.”​