Teen Team Facilitators: From The Field to the Classroom

Teens can spend a summer exploring the planet, growing their brains, all while under expert supervision? I know, it seems too good to be true, but not on an Earthwatch expedition. On each Earthwatch Teen Expedition, young adults work alongside renowned scientists at the cutting edge of conservation research and gain experience studying today’s most pressing environmental challenges. In addition to the scientific staff, each teen expedition features trained and experienced Earthwatch teen team facilitators who offer supervision and guidance throughout the expedition. These facilitators are the key to building a solid group dynamic while ensuring a vital platform for learning and personal development for students. I was lucky enough to chat with ten-time expedition facilitator, Mike Mao.

Mike Mao (far left in red) leads a group of teens in The Bahamas

Mike Mao (far left in red) leads a group of teens in The Bahamas

Currently a math and science teacher at Westwood High School in Westwood, Massachusetts, Mike has been a teen team facilitator ten times, including three teams in just one summer. “I love to travel and I love working with teenagers,” Mike said. “In the past five years, I’ve been on teams in Trinidad, California, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Belize. I like to expose people to science, especially young people.”

Mike previously chaperoned students on foreign language class trips to France and was asked by a fellow Westwood High teacher if he would be interested in facilitating on an Earthwatch expedition. “Since I started teaching, I’d been traveling more during the summers, and on top of that I am an avid hiker and really like the outdoors. I signed up to study leatherback sea turtles in Trinidad and have been hooked ever since. I really loved the experience and it made me want to come back summer after summer. I love to travel, I love to work with the kids, and this was the perfect balance between the two.”

Teens studying coffee plants in Costa Rica (copyright Mike Mao)

Teens study coffee plants in Costa Rica (copyright Mike Mao)

Mike is also able to take what he sees out in the field and use it with his students in the classroom. “I teach math, but a lot of the time I’m able to relate my experiences on an expedition with something that comes up in the classroom.” At Westwood High, there is a course called “Save the World” that allows students the opportunity to study the environment in specific areas of interest. “I will go into those classrooms,” said Mike, “and talk about my experience with Earthwatch. It helps to give the students perspectives that things like this exist, it makes it more relatable. Tagging sea turtles in the Caribbean? I’ve done that. It makes it not so far-fetched for them.”

04 Fieldwork-c. Dr. Sam Burgess

Teen team examines a leatherback sea turtle on the beaches of Trinidad (copyright Dr. Sam Burgess)

Mike continues volunteering and has plans to continue facilitating on Earthwatch expeditions. “I just really love doing the expeditions and have plans to do as many as I can. I’m actually in talks to go again this summer. But I can’t brag, there are some facilitators who have done more than twenty! These expeditions are a really incredible experience, and not just because working with the kids is so rewarding, but because I am actually learning something. I come back from facilitating each time just amazed at everything I have learned through the experience.”

This summer, Earthwatch is sending teen teams (and Mike!) out in the field to participate in exciting hands-on research. From studying the effects of climate change on wetlands in the Canadian Arctic, to examining leatherback sea turtles as they lay their eggs on Trinidad beaches, Earthwatch expeditions reach many corners of the world and encompass a variety of interests for adults and teens alike. Interested donors can sponsor a student fellowship or set up a tax-deductible Expedition Fund to help teens raise money in their schools and communities to join an expedition. To learn more about Earthwatch Expeditions, visit the website.


Volunteer cheers after a successful day of research in Madagascar (copyright Joel Quimby)