I’m ready to walk out into blazing sunlight – it’s 6:00AM and already nearly 80 degrees. I’m about to join the first day of Earthwatch’s Songbirds of the Rockies expedition in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I’m field-ready, loaded to the gills with three liters of water, numerous articles of clothing, a notebook, sun hat, rain-jacket, and a “hoorah” – the Teton Science School’s version of a self-packed, Tupperware rectangle into which I have squished my lunch. I try not to list too much to one side as I walk up the pathway to our meeting place.
Teachers take the Rockies, ready to engage in science
The participants on this expedition team are all teachers, ranging from grades K-12 and coming to the Rockies from New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York. I’ve told them that they mirror the map of my life, since I spent my childhood in Jersey, visited family in upstate New York during summer and fall trips, and have called Massachusetts my home since graduate school. These geographical coincidences are just the first of many reasons why I can’t help being incredibly fond of them all.
As the Senior Learning Manager at Earthwatch, my job entails adding a narrative to the field component of the volunteer experience. During the day, participants engage in science by working on one of our research projects; in the afternoon, through carefully crafted learning sessions, I take them through an exploration of what that science actually means to their daily lives. Much of my work boils down to the concept of sustainability, and the process of taking this often used (and misused) term and fashioning it into something participants make part of their everyday lives.
Songbirds enable teachers to spread their wings
Songbirds, after all, are everywhere. So it’s easy to make the connection between the research being done here in the Rockies and the birds people see in their backyards at home. And this place, like so many of the places we come from, has seen much development in recent decades and sits on the front lines of the struggle to survive for many species. So connecting this project to the teachers’ daily lives is relatively easy. What’s harder is leaving them with a sense of confidence in their ability to act, and inspiring them to change the world – or just their piece of it.
Quickly, a routine develops: days are filled with searching for the nests of one of four indicator species of birds, then entering the data into the research teams’ meticulous spreadsheets. Our evening learning sessions become a much-needed cognitive break during which I discover that what these teachers really need is a chance to talk with one another about what it’s like to be a teacher today – with ever-shrinking resources matched incongruously with ever-increasing demands. These frustrations can often seem like an endless set of obstacles. We do this until something else begins to emerge: the notion of how important teachers are in the lives of their students, especially when it comes to nature and the environment. How they are still, despite texting, and the Internet, and a zillion other things that pull at kids’ attention spans, one of the single greatest influencers that can make a child fall in love with the outdoors.
Mountains are humbling, but teachers rock
This is a thought we hold on to until the next day when the jagged edges of the Grand Tetons greet us once again. There’s a word the teachers have come up with for these mountains – “humbling” and they decide that being amidst such grandeur is, indeed, just that.
But I think the word is more applicable to them. These teachers are humbling for taking a portion of their summer to be part of an Earthwatch experience just so they can take it back to their classrooms in order to make nature just a little bit more real for their students. And for working so hard on something they care so deeply about and for passing that love and inspiration on to their students.
What I’ll take home from this expedition is this: teachers rock. And so do the scientists and research staff who make their experience here possible. There’s a power in getting away from it all, even for a few days, if only to discover how much you can do when you get back home.
Oh, and one other thing: the teachers taught me that nobody ever thanks their teachers. It’s pretty much legend in the profession that years of classes can go by without so much as a single note of gratitude. So let me put a stop to that by saying right here, right now: thank you for all you taught me on this expedition. You are most humbling and a true inspiration.