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Friday, 25 July 2014 00:00

Williams Bay group travels to Galapagos for hands-on learning

Written by  Edwin Scherzer for Walworth County Sunday
Students observe a wild tortoise in the Chato Preserve on the Galapagos Islands. Each tortoise is identified with a brand and a microchip. Students observe a wild tortoise in the Chato Preserve on the Galapagos Islands. Each tortoise is identified with a brand and a microchip. Photo provided by Barbara Kelly

WILLIAMS BAY -- Picture yourself surrounded by pristine blue water and sandy beaches. You’re snorkeling with friends, it’s the perfect day, when suddenly you emerge from the surf and come face to face with ... a teacher.

This beach-bound instructor is a genius in biology and asks what species you just observed underneath the waves.

That’s what a group of Williams Bay students, their science teacher Barbara Kelly and the science-minded folks at Ecology Project International, or EPI, worked on during a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

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Nine Williams Bay students and Kelly traveled to the archipelago at the end of the school year to work alongside EPI field scientists and other students to perform collaborative experiments and projects.

The connection to the program started with Kelly, who firmly believes that learning in the classroom is important, while learning in the field is life changing. "It’s very, very, very hands on," Kelly said. "I did not want a sight-seeing trip, I wanted a full immersion science trip, yet still be fun, because I think there’s a lot of science that’s not in a book."

For the students, it wasn’t just a trip of a lifetime; it was working in the field, collecting data for the purpose of applying the scientific method and giving group and individual presentations.

Their days included classroom lessons, preparing to defend their hypothesis and working with giant tortoises, finches and spiders.

Natasha Trush, 14, quickly learned that spiders are more intelligent than she gave them credit for. The species she studied, the king cross spider, weaves a web in a specific pattern.

"They make their web in a cross like zigzag shape, and if a bird flies into the web, the spider won’t have to make a new one, which I thought was smart," Trush said.

When the students, who ranged in age from 14 to 20, were done with their research, classroom sessions and project preparation, they didn’t head straight to their smartphones.

The EPI trip was "unplugged," something Trush said created a whole new skill for her and others.

"Without the phones, in the beginning we were wondering during our free time what we would do," she said. "We socialized."

Kelly, who started teaching at Williams Bay in 2009, took her first EPI group to Costa Rica two years ago to study endangered leatherback turtles. She has high praise for the educational nonprofit.

"I use them because they’re the cream of the crop, and we’ve had really good interactions and results with them," Kelly said.

Both the Costa Rica and Galapagos trips were outside of school time and not school-sponsored trips. Students from Williams Bay were simply invited to go so the trip would have a full quota. In addition to the conservation emphasis, hands-on field research, (experiential learning as it’s called), the group participated in a cultural exchange day, meeting children from a local tribe within the Galapagos and spending time with them.

Future trips, such as a planned EPI trip to the Baja Peninsula, hopefully will be approved to count as science credit course work at the college level.

The students, according to Kelly, performed quite well on land and water, because some presentations were given from a moving boat. Kelly, ever mindful of the main purpose for the trip, said the students received an A for the efforts, and EPI instructors agreed, "They said they were impressed with our questions and that we inspired them to go learn more about the Galapagos that our kids asked," Kelly said.

Both Trush and Kelly said the experience was amazing. While Trush is just getting her high school career off the ground, she thought being an EPI administrator would be an amazing life-changing adventure.

Kelly said it affirmed what she believes about learning all along, "I don’t think there’s any greater instruction than experience. I know that’s how I grew my love of biology, and I’m just trying to bring that to my students."

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