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HANDS-ON WITH NATURE—Students from Viewpoint School in Calabasas take part in a conservation research program with Ecology Project International on the Galápagos Islands last month. The students monitored eight tortoises, eradicated close to 1,500 invasive plants and identified 680 different seeds for the Galapagos National Park.
It is one thing to see the wonders of nature on television or learn about them in a classroom. But to see them up close and personal is another matter altogether.
In June, students from Viewpoint School in Calabasas spent 10 days in the Galápagos Islands taking part in a conservation research program with Ecology Project International, a nonprofit based in Missoula, Mont., that promotes science education and conservation through field-based, student-scientist partnerships.
Working with Ecology Project and the Galápagos National Park Service, the 10 Viewpoint students who participated in the June 15 to 26 trip tracked and monitored eight giant tortoises on Santa Cruz Island. In addition, they helped remove almost 1,500 invasive plants to restore native habitat and protect the indigent wildlife and its vulnerable ecosystems.
[Photos courtesy of Ecology Project International] Photos courtesy of Ecology Project International“With that, our students get firsthand data and experience working with scientists,” said Craig Didden, a Calabasas resident who chairs the Viewpoint School science department.
The studies allow the Galápagos park agency to assess the health of tortoises in different areas.
“This is part of an ongoing project. We looked for tortoises, measured (and weighed) them, and checked if they had a chip (tracking device) to see if they were tagged before and to update the information for long-term studies,” Didden said.
He and Casey Dodd, middle school director of student activities at the private school in Calabasas, chaperoned Viewpoint students during the recent scientific journey to the Galápagos.
The students learned ecology and biology. In addition to excursions and hands-on projects, they met students from the islands who also participate in the ecology program.
Situated in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos comprises 19 islands and a surrounding marine reserve.
According to UNESCO, extreme isolation of the islands has led to the development of unusual animal life, such as the land iguana, the giant tortoise and many types of finch, which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection after his visit to the islands in 1835.
A field science and conservation organization, Ecology Project International pairs scientists with local and international students and educators to work in regions that have ecologically rich environments, such as Costa Rica, Belize, Baja Mexico, Yellowstone National Park and the Galápagos Islands.
The islands are a spectacular natural laboratory, renowned for their endemic biodiversity. Yet many of these unique species are under threat of extinction, said the organization. Students who participate in the ecology program have access to behind-the-scenes areas and research projects, and they work in partnership with the Galápagos National Park to protect natural resources.
In addition to organizing conservation trips in the Galápagos, Didden works with Cal State Northridge biology professor Peter Edmunds to bring Viewpoint students to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the youths study the impact that climate change and ocean acidification have on coral reefs.
“I wanted to introduce students to the marine environment and field study so that they can get a better idea (of the effect) that our changing climate is having on the environment,” Edmunds said.
Edmunds, who has been taking students to the Virgin Islands to conduct coral reef studies for 30 years, said Didden is a remarkable educator who engages his pupils in learning.
“Science in a classroom is fantastic, but if you get kids out in the environment . . . that’s what really changes young lives. It’s just one of those awesome things you can do to get kids inspired to go into science, research and education careers,” Edmunds said.
In addition to Viewpoint, Ecology Project works with Chaminade College Preparatory School in West Hills and otherL.A. area schools, said Lisa Macki, recruitment coordinator for the organization.
The cost for the science adventure courses vary according to site and length. Viewpoint students paid $5,800 each for the Galápagos trip.