field trips

Inspiration for our Green Hope Group: Field trip to Al Baydha

Al Baydha: A prototype for settling the nomadic people of Saudi Arabia by providing ecological and economical stability through greening of their desert. Ultimately the Bedu people of this region will live off the land they are developing.

About 20 of us clamor onto the bus and shortly teenage rock music fills our space and the desert landscape scattered with camels expands out before us. Two and a half hours later and hundreds of kilometers of sand behind us we finally turn onto a narrow dirt leading to our destination, a lone building surrounded by a burgeoning farm scape. The women in the group all don their abaya and hijab. Several girls chose not to join us due to the clothing requirement so kudos to those who are with us today.


We are the first school group to visit Al Baydha. Our host, Neal Spackman, guides us upstairs to an open-air room of the isolated structure on the property. We seat ourselves comfortably and receive an introduction to this project site.

We study the greening desert immediately surrounding us and note the harsh and barren geography beyond the boundaries of Al Baydha. The  pigeon house, the terrace garden, the dams, and the swales are visible from our viewpoint. We eagerly head out to walk around the site and see the different aspects of the project close up. The students are part of the Green Hope group at school and have visions of making a difference in the world through their environmentally conscious efforts. They are here today to learn about a farming project that actually is building the local water reservoir.

A walk through the swale shows us an area blooming with flowering plants and alive with trees and shrubs. Just outside the swale lies rocks and sand, undisturbed by life. The students are stunned that a simple change in geography (basically building a ditch) can make such a difference. This swale traps water and allows it to absorb into the ground, adding water to the reserves below the surface. The stored water sustains the plant life that provides oils for the local people to sell and animal forage, ground cover, etc. to the developing ecosystem.


The bat cave has been sealed up, waiting for more bats to arrive and for guano to accumulate.

The bat cave is next on the tour. The Bedu workers are proud of this structure and pose for us. One week after the construction of this cave, bats were already sighted within and thousands are expected to eventually reside here. The bats will serve to eat mosquitos and flies and will provide their nitrogen rich guano for fertilization.


The Green Hope Group with Neal Spackman and his workers. On top of the bat cave.

When questioned whether they want to see the dams, the students do not hesitate to accept the offer. Off we march up the hills to observe the dam structure. Again, it is clear that the Bedu workers are proud of the results of their hard labor and eagerly lead the way up the hillside.

Our tour takes us past the pigeon house where pigeons exist without any feeding or maintenance. We climb up onto the garden terraces and step across lush greenery, a rare and amazing experience here in the harsh climate of Saudi Arabia. Here we end our tour with one last view of the project from the terraces.

Back on the bus, the women hastily shed their outerwear and position themselves under the relief of the air conditioning. A student exclaims, “It’s hard to believe that such a place exists here in Saudi Arabia.” The other students nod and utter agreement.

A peace settles in among us.  Climate change can be battled and water can be conserved. Awareness, in already broad-minded students, has been increased. A vision of possibilities has been provided. What a gift to have found this little pocket of hope in Saudi Arabia!

Would you like to know more?

Here is the Al Baydha web page (

And find Neal Spackman’s blog  here ( His blog describes his 5-year journey with the Al Baydha project.






Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip: Reflections and Was it Worth it?

Heads tip in wonder and discovery. Voices rise in heated debate over issues of sustainability. Fingers point and cries of excitement are uttered. Hushed awe. Quiet reflection is offered about humankind’s stewardship of earth. Friendships develop over nonelectronic games, shared experiences, and coping with humidity and insects. “Let’s save the world optimism” bubbles out of teenage minds and mouths.

That’s what Eva and I have seen. However, we also wonder what the students actually take away from an experience such as this. So, we asked them.

What was the best part of this trip and why?

  • “Watching baby turtles go into the sea”
  • “White water rafting”
  • “The night hiking”
  • “Playing soccer with the locals”
  • “I strengthened old friendships and built new ones”
  • “The places that we saw”

Every student experienced an aspect of this trip that struck a chord with him/her.


What difficulties did you experience on this trip and what did you gain from facing them”

  • “We did not have electronics…I faced it by playing games with my friends”
  • “Constantly being drenched in sweat and running out of clean clothes”
  • “Dangerous animals…I figured out that they are actually really cool” 
  • “The darkness…I gained that if I just face my fear I will get to see amazing things like an owl eating its prey (a mouse)”
  • “I had quite a hard time with giving up my phone, since I’m used to talking to my parents when I get scared…I learned that sometimes I   can deal with things myself”
  • “Facing my fear during the night hike…I gained the wonderful experience of seeing really cool animals”

Every student faced challenges and they all grew personally from them.



What have you learned from this trip?

  • “I learned to work in a team”
  • “I learned a lot about different animals species and how to conduct different types of scientific research” 
  • “I learned how to get good data for a good question”
  • “How to adapt to new living conditions”
  • “I learned to spend my money wisely”
  • “I learned about biology and ecology”
  • “The reason why certain species exist and how they function” 
  • “A surprise is always good!”
  • “That the rainforest is really important to the environment”
  • “The smallest things can have the greatest impact, for example, turning off our lights”
  • “The culture of Costa Rica”
  • “I learned a lot about sea turtles”
  • “I learned about rainforests and leatherback turtles”
  • “I learned a lot about conservation and about how we can make the world a more sustainable place like by reducing our water usage and only preparing what we can eat” 
  • “I have learned that electricity and clean running water should be used carefully…and they are luxuries that many people don’t have”
  • “I have learned about sustainability a lot. I did not even have a clue before I came here” 
  • “I learned that if people care more about sustainability then the nature can be saved”

Every student learned from this experience: socially, culturally, scientifically, and environmentally.

Are there any personal practices in your life that you might change as a result of this trip?

  • “I will take shorter showers” (the most common answer, several times over!)
  • “I won’t waste food” (the second most common answer, several times over!) 
  • “I will also take cold showers to reduce energy usage” 
  • “Support local economies”
  • “I will also tell my parents to cook less so we don’t waste as much food” 
  • I will try to become more sustainable: recycle more, turn off lights and I have some ideas to propose in school"


Would you recommend this trip to other students? Why or Why not?

100% of our participants recommend this trip to others and here’s why:

  • “It is a great learning experience”
  • “This trip is really an eye-opener”
  •  “It teaches a lot about the environment and about the animals and sea turtles”
  • “It is an amazing experience and a once in a life-time opportunity”
  • “It teaches people the importance of preserving our planet” 
  • “It also opens the minds of people to see how adaptable we really are to our environment. Conserve adapt, and be the change”
  • “An amazing opportunity to focus on what is actually important: face to face interaction with friends, laughter through sound instead of emojis, conserving and practicing sustainability, and becoming more aware of the world around us”
  • “You gain an appreciation of nature”

As Eva and I peruse through the student reflections on the plane ride home, we look at each other and say, “What more could we ask for?” Additionally, EPI has provided us with a wonderful curriculum, excellent instructors, an amazing program/itinerary, and an incredible support system in the country.

Indeed, this trip was worth it and we are already thinking of ideas, using EPI again, for next year!


If you're interested in knowing more about Ecology Project International (EPI), the group that organized our trip, click here.

leaf cutter ants at work

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART TWO: Turtle Reserve

The rainforest has been hot and humid for us. Seriously, I’ve never been so permanently wet in my life. Nothing dried, not even our hair.  As we leave La Suerte we are hoping the sea might bring us refreshment. We endure a long bus ride and then boat ride before we arrive at Pacuare, a Nature Reserve on the Caribbean.  We lug our baggage from the boat along a forested trail to quaint cabins situated right where rainforest meets beach. Though there is no electricity and the fresh water is limited, we settle right into what we find to be cozy accommodations.

And, most importantly, the beach does afford us a refreshing breeze and we feel the sticky hot sliding from our skin. That evening we begin our night patrols: under a full moon, beautiful breezy weather with the water lapping at our ankles. “This is perfect. How hard can this be?” we ask. Well, the next night yields a different experience.

Eva grips my hand with the iron-man clasp prompting my comment, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve done in my life.” We can’t even see each other it’s so dark. Each step we take is into a black abyss leaving us completely reliant on the pair in front of us to give warning of any obstacles they encounter (i.e. dips in the sand, drift wood, logs, washed up coconuts, etc.). The rain drenches every part of my lower body and raindrops slide down my back as rain penetrates my jacket. The downpour pelts us ferociously and we stumble forward over sticks and other debris.

Unusually wet conditions and flooding of the beach has prevented many leatherback turtles from accessing the beach and has destroyed the nests of many who did make it ashore. Thus, our night patrols yield no sightings of mother leatherback turtles or hatchlings. Were any of our groups to spot either mothers or hatchlings they would have participated in taking measurements and recording important data relevant to the conservation of this magnificent species. We did, however, get lucky one day…

Part of the work at Pacuare involves monitoring known nesting sights (those that were observed being created on night patrols). Once a nest has passed it’s “due date” researchers dig up the eggs to determine whether there are survivors or whether the nests have succumbed to fungi or bacteria rendering undeveloped eggs.  Students were interrupted from their research projects with news that a nest of survivors had been discovered.! We ran to the beach to watch the nest-investigation process.

Baby leatherbacks exit their shells and begin the 1 m (more or less) dig to the surface, with the leaders resting while others take the lead. They work in shifts until the entire hatchling group makes it to the surface. However, if most of the nest doesn’t hatch (as in the case of the one uncovered), the survivors have no chance to get to the surface as they don’t have the energy to do it alone.

The woman in the green kerchief to the right is researching the correlation between fungus and bacteria growth on and in the eggs with survival of the hatchlings. She collects data on each egg and then saves the survivors in a bucket of sand until they are ready to make their “run” for the ocean (a process critical for their ultimate survival).  Another nest unveils even more survivors. We are fortunate to be invited to the release of these babies later in the afternoon.

At the given time we all meet on the beach and the bucket is turned over to allow the babies to begin their journey to the sea. Together we share in this amazing experience under beautiful blue skies with sunrays warming our skin. It’s perfect and I’m so glad the students (and teachers!) are fortunate enough to get this experience.

Data collection and turtle observation is coupled to real-life research experience for the students.  Now the students are working on their comparative studies. Heads are bent with intensity. Hands are holding measuring devices, recording data, or pointed at interested parts of the experiment. 

Their topics include:

  1. Do members of our group throw a coconut further over or underhanded?
  2. Is there a difference between two species of ants’ time to run through a maze?
  3. What is the difference in time between a leaf cutter ant’s walk over 1 m with and without a leaf?
  4. What is the difference in time between a leaf cutter’s ascent vs. descent on the particular stem of a plant?

Discussions on sustainability and conservation continue throughout our time there. Students sample Costa Rican fruits and play a football (soccer) game with local youth. Our experience is fully rounded with conservation, science, and culture.

During what was supposed to be our last day a Pacuare, we are evacuated due to extreme rain and possible flooding of the area. Though our time there is cut short, we leave fulfilled with what we experienced.  Our remaining time in Costa Rica includes a visit to the Botanical Gardens and a day of rafting.

We compare the food waste from our first days to our last days. We’ve reduced our food waste from over I kg down to fewer than 200g. WOW- habits have changed. Students are also masters of the 2 min (or less) showers. They are thinking sustainably. For their last activity, students engage in an activity that involves ‘building’ sustainable towns. They realize how difficult it is to communicate and bring people together towards one goal. They are humbled with the task of making the world more aware of the importance of conservation and living sustainably. They know they’ll start with their families.

Eva and I reflect  on this experience and whether it was worth it and whether we would consider doing another trip (I'll write about that next). We hope none of us will return home and forget about the lessons we have learned here. Cleansed from a warm shower and feeling fulfilled, Eva and I slip into slumber anticipating our long flight journey home.

NEXT POST: Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip: Reflections and Was it Worth it?

A baby leatherback turtle entering the water

To learn more about Ecology Project International (EPI), click here.

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART ONE: The Rain Forest

It all begins at the beginning of the school year with the question, “Should I take some of my summertime and chaperone students on a ecology conservation trip next summer?” Really I don’t have to think too hard to answer that question because I already know that it is incredibly fulfilling to be part of an exploration service-learning trip with students. Then, the decision must be made as to which organization to choose. Research and experience lead me to settle with Ecology Project International (EPI- click here to look at their site)

Announcements, posters, and parent evenings follow.  Sign-ups, emails, and reminders continue. There is more interest than expected so another chaperone, my dear friend and colleague, Eva, is added to the group. Coordination with EPI is paramount.  As our date approaches we schedule another parent meeting and review the packing list and the anticipated schedule. It’s real! We’re heading to Costa Rica for a leatherback turtle ecology experience.

June 28 is our departure date. Parents, students, and teachers meet with giddy excitement at the red and white cube in Schiphol airport. The 14- hour journey to San Jose, Costa Rica is relatively smooth and we meet up with our EPI guide, David. Later we are joined by Stanley, who the students affectionately nick-name “Sally” due to an initial misunderstanding of David’s pronunciation of the name.

The first item on the agenda is to surrender all electronics, teachers included. Students reluctantly hand in their devices, not sure if they’ll be able to survive without them

In addition to some sites near San Jose (Poaz volcano and the Turrialba Botanic Garden) our adventure includes time at the La Suerte Rainforest Reserve. The students are introduced to issues of sustainability, Costa Rican Ecology, and carrying out proper scientific investigations (descriptive, comparative, and correlative). They begin individual research on a specific species and plan descriptive investigations. Juxtaposed to these activities are hikes in the rainforest and lectures by scientists working in the field at La Suerte.

We are constantly serenaded by the cicadas. Presentations are interrupted in order to observe a mother sloth with infant traversing the trees flanking our camp or to snatch a peek at a woodpecker at work behind us or to watch a lizard passing through. Monkeys are seen jumping through the trees and their vocalizations ring out throughout the forest. The multiple and diverse noises of the rainforest fluctuate all day and penetrate into the night.

The students are enjoying and reflecting on the wonder of earth on a daily basis. “Wait a minute, look at this!” or “What is that?” are common outbursts coupled with “That is so cool” or “Amazing”. They appreciate the lush vegetation that surrounds them and the important ecosystems that it holds. They recognize the need to preserve these parts of our world if humanity is to continue to exist.

The students are becoming aware of reducing food waste and the need to save fresh water. The cumulative left-over food on their plates is dropping drastically and they are learning the art of the 2-minute (or less) shower. They spontaneously offer reflection on how amazing it would be if the entire world were to become so acutely aware of the need to conserve. They discuss how they would like to incorporate these changes in their lives back home. They evaluate practices of companies in Costa Rica, such as the banana and pineapple plantations and determine to be more selective in finding companies that practice sustainability when making future purchases.

The students are both enthralled and slightly appalled by a scientist’s lecture on his research into the homing patterns of the whipspider at La Suerte. He describes the capture of and the insertion of the GPS device onto the spider, the spider’s movements, and the different experimental approaches taken with the spiders. In fact the mention of the spider’s speed and danger deters three students from joining us on the night hike! It’s just too creepy for them.  However, they appreciate that his studies lead to understandings and advancements in the real world, including the field of bionics. The primatologist on site gives great insight into her experience as a field scientist that began with studies of the vocalization patterns of Lemurs in Madagascar.  She is at La Suerte leading primate field school studies for university students. On our hikes we have run into the student groups observing and collecting data on the howler monkeys, the white-faced capuchin monkeys, and the spider monkeys.

Our students are easily identifying heliconia species, ferns, epiphytes, strangler fig trees and more! They spot the red as well as the black and green poison dart frogs regularly. A pause to observe the leaf cutter ants is frequent. Anticipation of lizard and snake sightings is high. Unusual spiders, lizards, and creatures of all sorts result in squeals of delight and intrigue. Not only does each hike in the rainforest yield amazing sightings but our walks to and from the main cabin are equally interesting!

Before we leave La Suerte the students finish and report on their descriptive studies. As they observe they are intent on their work, fully engaged in discovery. Here are the topics they chose:


  1. What is the average number of coconuts on the tress in the La Suerte camp area?
  2. What is the typical shape of the leaves cut by the leaf cutter ants at the La Suerte camp site?
  3. What is the average number of mosquito bites obtained by members of our group thus far on the trip?
  4. What is the average number of veins on the leaves of the Aphelandra scraba plant (and is there a correlation to leaf size) at the edge of our La Suerte campsite.
  5.  How many poison dart frog sightings are there during our walks to and from the main cabin?
  6. How many centipedes can be found on the walkways around our camp?

At the end of PART ONE of our trip, my colleague, Eva and I are pleased with what has been gained thus far.  A noticeable change amongst the students has evolved: discussions, playing games, and interacting. The absence of electronic devices is a gift and a major feature of allowing students to fully engage themselves in this experience. The immersion in the rain forest is incredible. Students are duly awed, as are we, at the magnificent diversity found on earth. Awareness of the connection between humans and earth is heightened. Personal habits are being evaluated. The idea of sustainable living is beginning to form. At our last night at La Suarte we happily fall asleep to the chirps, tweets, and calls of the jungle outside our cabin as we anticipate the leatherback turtle ecology portion of our trip.

NEXT POST: Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART TWO

One of our serenading cicadas: their cumulative chirping could almost be deafening at times.

Costa Rica here we come!

The program and research itinerary are scheduled. The flight tickets have been purchased. The medical forms and travel consent forms are filtering into my classroom. The reality of our adventure is emerging but it’s still five months away!

This coming summer a group of students and I will travel to Costa Rica to participate in the Ecology Project International  (EPI) research program to study the nesting sites of leatherback turtles.

People often question my choice to spend two weeks of precious summer time to volunteer chaperoning students 24/7. I’ll admit, it’s not a vacation and it’s exhausting. However, I am given a front row seat to a rite of passage in which teenagers experience a once in a lifetime opportunity of rare contact with the wild. The students are offered new and unique perspectives to their relationship with the earth.  As they face issues involving their life-style choices and the future of our world, these students will self-reflect and discover their opinions and where they stand. And what a gift to be part of that!

Of the students still at my school who joined me on the South Africa trip last year, we share a special bond. For those who continue to study with me in the classroom, we enjoy repeated references and curriculum connections to our research experiences from the summer. Daily the exclamation arises, “We learned about this in South Africa!” What a joy to witness the assimilation of authentic science and legitimate issues that link to greater learning later.

Of course, with my students I will also have great pleasure in our participation in research in the Costa Rican wild. So, being in a beautiful area while fostering real education that results in maturation of youth is a perfect way to start my summer holiday. Yes, there is great anticipation for this June adventure!

Until July 6th no blogging: I'm in South Africa!!!

The final parent/student meeting fully attended.

Plans for meeting at the airport arranged.

Final discussions of PADI kits, where to get a wetsuit, medications, and telephones have taken place.

The Kit list has been checked off.

The bags are packed.

Tens of parent/student emails have been sent, including several pleas for emergency contact information.

Tomorrow a group of ten students and two teachers will meet at the Amsterdam Schiphol airport to begin our journey to Johannesburg, South Africa.  There we will meet the representatives from the Wallacea Opwall program and will be bussed to our location for two weeks of conservation courses, field work, and research. 

I will be keeping a daily record and will blog about it upon our return!

Until July 6th!  Happy and safe summer travels to all!

High School Expedition to South Africa!

It all started over a year ago.  I was brainstorming some ideas on how I could organize some really cool field trips for more mature science students.  I desired them to participate in fieldwork and real research.  My ideas grew and I realized it would be an even more valuable experience if there was service and/or conservation involved.  My research led me to the Operation Wallacea group ( that conducts conservation research through academic partnerships.  Comparisons with a host of other organizations resulted in me selecting the Wallacea group with which to pursue an expedition.

A representative came to our school last April to speak with students and parents.  To my surprise there was enough interest expressed to warrant commencing the process of scheduling and planning an expedition.

Thus was my inauguration into arranging such a journey for a group.  Decisions regarding collecting, tracking, and distributing funds descended upon me.  Thankfully, even though this isn’t a school-sponsored trip, the school accountant has helped me with this process.  Next, expedition booking and flight arrangements were of precedence.  Then we had additional students and a chaperone join the group and I had to coordinate adding them in to the process mid-stream.  

Countless emails, discussions, and phone calls later, I reflect back on this past year and am amazed at how I managed to squeeze the time in outside of school hours to attend to the necessities for organizing this trip.  This afternoon I printed out the packing list for the expedition and documents for parents to sign in preparation for a parent/student informational meeting on the trip.  Upon placing these items in a folder for each student I felt a surge of excitement and realization settled into my mind: this trip (June 21 – July 4) is happening!

The students and parents filed into the classroom tonight eager for information.  During the course of the 2-hour meeting I see flickers of excitement from both students and parents.  Now I am consumed with a sense of adventure and thrilled to be accompanying these wonderful youth and my super colleague on an experience of a lifetime.  We will be collecting conservation data that will be submitted to the UN in an effort to seek funds for the community to establish conservation programs.  The work will benefit not only the organisms of that area but the local people as well since they will staff the conservation efforts.  The last part of the trip will be spent on the coast scuba diving and completing coral reef studies.

We haven’t even departed yet and I am sensing that this will definitely be worth my efforts.  Here is the crazy thing; I emailed my contact at Wallacea tonight to find out about scheduling a 2015 expedition.  Anyone want to join?