By Keegan Dougherty, Earthwatch Senior Expedition Advisor
For students, the opportunity to travel and conduct scientific field research is a rare but valuable experience. Benjamin Caraballo, a teacher in East Harlem, knows this firsthand and has made it his goal to create this opportunity for many of his students. He shares how he has been able to make these trips happen and some of the highlights from the field.
We are fixated on the idea of “traveling with purpose” here at Earthwatch. For us, travel is really a means to an end and a way to achieve our mission: engaging people worldwide in scientific field research and education. While we engage and educate many groups right in their own backyards, some groups really need and deserve the transformational opportunities that come with traveling further afield.
I can think of no more deserving group than the high school students who otherwise might never have the chance to travel or do scientific field research were it not for Earthwatch. For these students, a trip is much more than just a trip. It is a spark for lifelong curiosity about the natural world, a springboard to make changes in how they live and operate, a chance to build lifelong friendships with their peers, a window into new cultures and perspectives, and a way to discover who they are.
Few of our partners take this concept further than Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation located in the Manhattan neighborhood of East Harlem, where science teacher Benjamin Caraballo leads his high school students through an intensive Earthwatch course before they join one of our research expeditions over the summer.
Ben starts the students thinking big – really big! Recently, I sat in on a class where Ben’s students were learning about creation myths to compare how different cultures understand the world before moving on to the foundational theories of science. Over the next few months, Ben’s students will tackle the big bang, the history of science, Latin scientific nomenclature, fundamentals of biology, foundations of ecology, and lastly, bees and other wild pollinators!
Clearly, one of those topics in the syllabus is not like the others. Ben explains how he got started with Earthwatch and what the expeditions mean to him and his students in the Q&A below.
How did you get your start with Earthwatch?
My first encounter with Earthwatch came as a peculiar email in my inbox about a new professional development initiative called Project Kindle. It stated that Earthwatch was seeking dynamic science teachers to experience a typical expedition and help lead a student group the following year. The brochure announced that teachers selected would be funded to help study the effects of climate change on endangered coral reefs species in beautiful Little Cayman Island for a week. Having no prior information or experience with Earthwatch, I must admit I was a bit skeptical. Was this really happening? I decided to apply, and after a quick search, discovered that Earthwatch was the perfect organization to help realize a long-term professional goal of mine – to expose my students to first-hand ecological fieldwork, and they would get to do it alongside a working climate change research scientist.
In Little Cayman, I met a group of passionate science teachers who work in a variety of different educational settings, and we spent the week working side by side to collect data underwater. In the evenings, we brainstormed and workshopped ideas. How could we effectively make this a reality for our students? I am so happy to say that we are now in our fourth year of student expeditions and I am so glad I answered that email!
How long have you been teaching, and did you do anything before teaching?
I have been teaching for 13 years now. My, how time flies! I always knew teaching would be a part of my career as a young adult, I just imagined it would be at the end of my professional pathway. But after returning from my senior semester abroad in Tanzania, I was facing a quickly approaching graduation date from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU. I had spent the past four months studying wildlife and conservation and practicing my photography, but I hadn’t given much thought to what would come next. “Now what?” I kept asking myself. I was mulling over this growing anxiety about my career path with my resident hall manager when he mentioned the NYC Teaching Fellows Program, a subsidized Master’s program that seeks professionals and change of career path adults to teach in New York City neighborhoods. He was getting his own MA in History Education and suggested I give it a try since teaching, as a profession, was already part of the plan. If I didn’t enjoy it, I could complete the program and move on. I figured it was a reasonable plan and decided to apply. What I didn’t expect was how much I would truly enjoy it. Although the learning curve was steep and I was often on the brink of a nervous breakdown, I fell in love with the cultivation of scientific principles and the process of learning. The excitement that I saw in my student’s eyes only further fueled my own passion and love of learning.
How did the Project Kindle fellowship fit into your school’s culture of innovation?
Project Kindle fits perfectly with the Innovation’s Core Values of Innovation, Collaboration, and Activism. At Innovation, teachers and administrators are not afraid to try new approaches to student engagement and learning. We have a variety of programs and initiatives that have been fostered by dynamic staff members and administrators and seek to partner with like-minded organizations to create meaningful opportunities for our students.
That being said, after observing my students on the first expedition, I realized I needed to enhance our curricula to help students get the most of their Earthwatch experience. I met with various key stakeholders in our school’s administration and with the help of Keegan Dougherty and the rest of the Earthwatch staff members, we have created a multiyear pipeline program. Select sophomores and junior students take a tropical biology course in the fall and participate in an Enrichment Week program that focuses on local ecosystems in the spring, which culminates in their summer expedition. Upon completion, they move into their senior year where they work on various projects and initiatives to promote awareness in our community.
What has been the greatest challenge in organizing trips for students?
The toughest challenge, and I know many Earthwatch teachers will agree, has been figuring out how to fund the expedition. I work at a Title I school where 86% of students receive free or reduced lunch and live in the disenfranchised neighborhood of East Harlem. Although my school fully supported my initiative and vision – a stumbling block for others in a more traditional setting – I knew my school could not fully absorb the costs. We brainstormed with our school administrators, students, my fellow Project Kindle alumni, and Earthwatch staff members to find activities and fundraising events that would help us achieve our goal. Learning what fundraising events work in your school and your community will be a process of trial and error. We found bowlathons, chocolate sales, and local community happy hours to be wildly successful. We now have a feasible and realistic multi-sourced fundraising plan that sets checkpoints and allows our students to take part in advocating for their own experience.
Why did you choose Costa Rica as your Earthwatch expedition?
I chose the location because Costa Rica was where I fell in love with ecological research as an undergraduate. I wanted to provide an experience similar to my own for students in hopes of inspiring future scientists and science researchers. The Conserving Bees and other Pollinators in Costa Rica is an expedition that provides the experience of ecological fieldwork. And of course, it focuses on a highly important group of organisms that are extremely susceptible to the effects of climate change! Pollinators provide such an important ecological niche and service that Science Times recently named them “the most important living beings on Earth.” Additionally, it is a relatively low-risk expedition (there are other expeditions that would give me, as a chaperone, a heart attack!) After meeting Dr. Valerie Peters, and experiencing her passion for and vast expertise with pollinators, I knew our students were going to have a meaningful, life-changing experience.
What has been most impactful for your students?
I think what has been the most impactful for them is the eye-opening experience of being immersed in such a rich, delicate, and highly bio-diverse location and experiencing a typical workweek of a field biologist: the good, the bad, and the ugly. For many students who have never left the city, let alone the country, travel is a new experience that brings new personal growth. Earthwatch has provided our students, students of color in particular, with access to real-life career experiences in the STEM fields that can expose them to new opportunities and career paths. Choosing an expedition that focuses on bees, a group that is not typically of high interest, in a remote location in Costa Rica gave our students a sense of how serious the effects climate change have on such delicate organisms. The best part of being in such a remote location was their limited cell phone usage, which forced them to build relationships and experiences together and be present in their surroundings. When they returned, many of our students have written about their experiences in their personal statements for college, and some have even reconsidered their majors!
What are some of your favorite highlights from traveling with your students?
There are so many, it’s so hard to choose! In our first cohort, there was a student, who was known for not being the most academic and a bit of a class clown. He was a first-generation Dominican-American and an English Language Learner. Although he was a leader amongst his peers in athletics, he often got into issues with behaviors in class and struggled with written assignments. He was a natural-born artist, however, constantly drawing on his clothing and snapping visually interesting photos of his surroundings. After taking recommendations from counselors and his previous science teachers who thought he would do well in an experiential setting, we added him to the program. During the expedition, he came alive! He wanted to absorb everything around him, be the first to do every task and model, and ask really good questions of the research team. It was great to see him shine in this way. He kept his peers motivated, making sure they worked together as a team, and wasn’t afraid to speak to locals or other school groups. When we returned, he was the most vocal in our panel discussion to the science department and administration of what this experience meant to him and encouraged teachers to do more activities that were experience-based. He designed artwork for the recycling bins and created prints of his photographs for our fundraising event. He returned as the youth leader in the second cohort of Earthwatch expeditions and was a key part of keeping morale high among the students. Although he is now pursuing a degree in art therapy, he says his experience in the field really changed him and he was thankful we took a chance on him.
What would you say to someone considering donating to the scholarship fund?
A student called me this summer after completing his college freshman summer orientation. He wanted to get my advice on something he couldn’t decide. After hearing about the different academic tracks in his program at SUNY and the study abroad and research options available, he realized he wants to do more of what he experienced on his Earthwatch expedition. He told me how much he loved collecting data and being outdoors. He told me how there are so many bees buzzing around the outdoor student eating area that cause students panic and anxiety, but it only reminded him of how important they were and how much he loved working with them. Although I don’t know if bees will ultimately be his field of expertise, he is now enrolled in the Biology Ecology and Conservation Biology track at SUNY and it fills me with joy that he is majoring in the sciences. This conversation is what experiences outside the classroom like Earthwatch expeditions are able to create. They open doors to new opportunities and ideas that our students need.
But don’t just take Ben’s word. Here are a few quotes from his students:
“The experiences I’ve had in the Earthwatch program have been irreplaceable. This expedition was something I thought I would never have the opportunity to have. Being able to help in real scientific research has had such a huge impact on me and given me a lot to think about. Traveling to another country and sampling certain organisms only available to that area to studying how we can minimize climate change effects was truly amazing. We’ve met some brilliant people involved in the trip and they’ve opened our eyes to the threat of climate change on pollinators that some of us never knew about.” –Arlene
“Going to a whole new country, being in the field with nature and doing actual science was eye-opening. The trees and insects and animals are organisms you simply can’t experience in the city. The time spent bonding with others in the heat was an experience that was worth all the hard work and sweat.” –Anthony
“I never knew how important pollinators are to the environment until this trip. Throughout the week, we met new people and made new friends. Friends who I passed by in the hallway every day and would’ve never talked to if it wasn’t for this trip.” –Aichatou
To help other high schoolers have this exciting learning opportunity, consider donating to the Earthwatch Scholarship Fund. With your support, Earthwatch can open up new worlds of scientific discovery.