Each year, Katrina Mangin travels with a group of University of Arizona students and local educators – and sometimes others from around the nation – to a set of islands recognized as a world heritage site.
The group returned in early August after a nearly month-long stay in the Galápagos Islands, where about a dozen students and teachers got up close to lava flows from past volcanic eruptions and studied and observed a range of animals.
The purpose behind the annual educational trip is multifaceted and somewhat unique, said Mangin, a UA ecology and evolutionary biology lecturer who teaches the summer course for the UA’s Galápagos Marine Ecology Program.
“The program is unusual in that it provides teachers with an opportunity to work in a school, to participate in a service project with the Galápagos National Park and to travel to a number of the most interesting islands in the archipelago,” she said.
And teachers have the chance to conduct short-term investigations about plants and animals that they can later incorporate into their teachings, she said.
“What could be a better experience for a teacher to have than to help teach a variety of science subjects – to bring alive the study of ecology, evolution, conservation and the history of science? It enables them to share their personal experiences, photos, and stories with their students,” Mangin said.
And students who attend “are not just tourists,” she said, adding that some initiate their own research projects.
“They get to know people and participate in the conservation of the islands and learn enough about the local issues on the islands so they can be able to appreciate the complexities of some of the many conservation issues.”
This year, the group helped to pull up an invasive plant species from the Galapaguera, which is a semi-natural park where giant tortoises are raised from eggs and are protected from predators until they grow large enough to live in the wild. The group also worked with the Galápagos National Park and one of the local schools on a service project to lay a new trail.
Whitney Henderson, a UA senior studying ecology and evolutionary biology, said she found great value in the trip.
“This course was an unexpected experience in many ways,” Henderson said.
“Not only was I able to experience and study wildlife and ecosystems that are completely unique to the Galápagos Islands, but I was able to be immersed in a culture so different from my own and form friendships, both with people from the islands and with my fellow students,” she added. “That has changed my life in many ways. It sounds cliché, but it truly was the most incredible month of my life.”
The course is quite popular and has been offered at the UA for six years.
Several local teachers were able to participate in the program thanks to two UA outreach programs – the BioME and Tucson GEAR UP Program.
The BioME teachers were Carolyn Hollis, who teaches at John E. White Elementary School, and Lynn Crew and Aaron Miller who both teach at Amphitheater Middle School.
Tucson GEAR UP provided funding for Tucson High Magnet School teachers Margaret Wilch and Aída Castillo-Flores.
“I have to say that the experience will definitely enhance my teaching. Where do I start? What an incredible opportunity to have first-hand knowledge of the islands and the uniqueness of their physical features and biology will enrich the learning experience of my students and classes,” said Castillo-Flores, who teaches biology.
Castillo-Flores, whose scholarship was funded through the UA's Office of Early Academic Outreach and College of Science, also said she “had so many National Geographic moments” that will enable her to expand her classroom teachings.
Wilch said the experience was an “incredible” one.
“This has been a biologist’s dream trip,” said Wilch, also a Tucson GEAR UP Project scholarship recipient for the course. “I have come to take for granted how accessible the wildlife is here. I have swam with hundreds of dolphins in the open ocean, with sharks, sea turtles and eagle rays, penguins and schools and schools of beautiful fish, yellow tailed surgeons and Pacific Creole as well as diving down to inspect the outrageously colored parrotfish and damselfishes.”
Mangin, who also directs science education and outreach for her department, said the exchange is mutual.
“It also helps the Galápagos students appreciate their own natural heritage more to see how much we, as foreigners, value the unique animals and plants of the Galápagos,” she said. “It is similar to having visitors come to Tucson and get excited about the saguaros. It gives you a better appreciation for what’s in your own backyard.”