Through a Teacher’s Journey, Students Experience the World

There’s an adage that says “Those who can, DO. And those who can’t, TEACH.”

Gretel von Bargen is a biology teacher at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington who’s been haunted by this statement ever since she began teaching. Gretel can “DO” – she always could. Ever since her collegiate days at the University of Washington in the late ‘90’s, she’s had a passion for biology, chemistry and anthropology. And ever since she received her first Earthwatch catalog in the mail, she daydreamed about where in the world she wanted to go.

Gretel von Bargen, Biology teacher from Skyline High School on Earthwatch Expedition in Ecuador

Gretel von Bargen, Biology teacher from Skyline High School on Earthwatch Expedition in Ecuador

From a Fellow to a Leader
In 2004, Gretel earned a fellowship from Earthwatch funded by the National Geographic Society and went to Brazil to join the Conserving the Pantanal expedition. On this expedition, she and other adventuresome and innovative educators volunteered to help collect data on animals and the conservation process in the world’s largest wetland. Once and for all, Gretel wanted to prove to herself that she did not become a teacher because she could not cut it as a field biologist – in fact, she could do both!

Gretel filled me in: “While assisting with the field research in the Pantanal, I found myself performing activities and then thinking to myself how I could bring my experiences back into the classroom.  By bringing stories of authentic science into my lessons, my students will see the validity of what I teach.  By telling stories of caiman and jaguars, I will forge a connection with my students that will enable them to want to learn from me, to be interested in what I have to say.  I wrote a list of advanced biology lesson ideas nearly two pages long, based on ideas gleamed from experiences in the field.”

Beginning in 2009, in addition to bringing her field research learning to the classroom, Gretel brought her classroom to the field to participate in real-world, hands-on science. She even brought her husband, Curtis, along to chaperone. That year, Gretel brought 17 of her students, aged 16-17, to the Bahamian Reef Survey expedition to monitor coral reef health. Since then, she’s organized and led groups of students to Ecuador on Canopies, Climate, and Critters of the Ecuadorian Rainforest and to Trinidad on Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles. She’s even scheduled to bring a class back to Trinidad in the summer of 2013 for her 3rd trip there.

Gretel explained: “Turtles and Trinidad catch my fancy. Trinidad is culturally different enough to feel exotic for the kids, but it’s also safe enough so they don’t feel at risk. They can speak English. The government is stable. The students and parents feel safe. It’s rural, and most of these kids haven’t seen how the rest of the world lives, where these people are very happy, but may have a tenth of the material goods of what my students have.”

Students and Leatherback Sea Turtles in Trinidad

Students and Leatherback Sea Turtles in Trinidad

Students Learn Life Lessons Without Even Knowing It
In the field, students are so in awe of their surroundings that they don’t even realize they are learning valuable life lessons. From learning about cultures, to assisting with animal conservation, to being motivated by the impact that one individual can make – it’s inspirational.

We Can Be Just as Happy With Less
Gretel shared a conversation she had with a student while sitting in the back of a truck on the way to the beach to look for turtles:

“It was a bumpy road. We were bobbling up and down in the truck. And a 17-year old boy who is financially well-off turns to me and says to me: ‘The people. They’re so happy.’ He thought it was amazing they were so happy and they didn’t have iPods, GameBoys, internet and cable TV. It was then that he realized people do not need material things to be happy. It was the first time he ever experienced that.”

Even beliefs about food in other cultures were brought into question. Students were getting tired of eating rice and beans every day when they were used to eating whatever they want back home, any hour of the day.

I viewed the fact that students knew that they were missing their food as an opportunity for learning. We chatted about how being a picky eater is a problem of privilege, how most people in the world cannot simply open a refrigerator and pick from a selection of food choices. Students need to change the way they look at things. It makes them realize what they might take for granted at home.”

Lessons From the Field in Ecuador

Lessons From the Field in Ecuador

To Preserve Wildlife, Act
While there are clearly life lessons that can be learned in any foreign land, I really wanted to know what Gretel’s fascination with turtles was.

“The turtles are really inspirational. When you see them the first time, you realize turtles have been coming onto the beach just like they are today for 65 million years. For the kids to actually be able to go up and touch these endangered animals, you are really lucky. For them to have that kind of experience is great. The students are making an impact. They can see their data being counted and tallied, and realize the importance of being accurate and thorough with their data collection.”

One Person Can Make a Difference
Leatherback Sea Turtles is run in partnership between Earthwatch and Nature Seekers, a community-based conservation organization formed to protect nesting turtles. Their main conservation efforts are based around tagging turtles for tracking and patrolling the beach to protect the turtles and their nests. What is most impressive, though, is that this organization was started by one person with a passion and drive to make a difference: Susan Lakhan Baptiste.

“The fact that Susan started Nature Seekers by herself is a wonderful lesson for my students tied to the impact that one person can make. Her saying ‘I am not going to take the slaughtering of this animal’ has turned into an international conservation organization.”

The Teacher Gets it Done
While it is clear that students get a lot out of group trips, none of it would be possible without teachers like Gretel von Bargen – and it starts long before they ever get into the field, and continues even after they return.

“Recruitment is very easy for me, because there is a lot of word of mouth from the kids. I just say we have 14 spots that are first come, first served. We started school two weeks ago and our slots are already full for 2013.

Once I have a team set, we have a monthly preparation meeting with students and families and talk about what to expect culturally, with their health, and about preparing for the strenuous work. We’ll also practice scientific methods that will be used in the field. There are usually about nine or ten meetings. You can definitely feel that the closer the expedition gets, the more the excitement builds.

When I return from the field, I take what the kids have written to me in their journals and use it to write a debrief that goes to all the kids and their families. The parents like to see that the money they have invested has made an impact.”

Once in the field, Gretel lets the lead scientist do the teaching while she takes on more of a den-mother role, and is part of the team.

“The fact that we are living together in the heat and humidity of the tropics is quite bonding, and it happens pretty quickly. I try not to take an ‘I’m an authority’ approach. The PI’s [principle investigators] do that. What is wonderful for me is when student can participate and ask really good questions to the PI’s. It makes me feel proud. I try not to be too much of a teacher when I’m there. I’m just one of the team.”

The task can be hardest when the team returns home.

“As the expedition comes to an end, the students can’t believe it’s going to be over. They are going to miss it so much, and are sad to leave. For the seniors especially, when I drop the kids off at the airport, it could be the last time I see them, as they then might be off to college. It can be emotional. I have pictures of us at the airport crying as we say goodbye to each other.”

The goodbyes won’t last long, as I’m sure Gretel’s first 2013 preparation meeting is right around the corner!

Gretel's Team from Sammamish, Washington with Leatherback Sea Turtles

Gretel’s Team from Sammamish, Washington with Leatherback Sea Turtles

Learn more about Earthwatch High School Groups.