student trips

South Africa 2014: Will I do a trip like this again?

“OK, we have one last task for all of you to do before we head back home”.  Student heads lift up over the seats in the tour bus to determine what their teachers have in mind.  The three of us, stand in unison, and hand out sheets of paper to be filled in anonymously.  Once each student demonstrates that he/she has a writing utensil, we began with the questions:

  • What did you gain (personally and/or academically) from this experience?
  • What was your favorite part of this trip?
  • What surprised you the most about this trip?
  • Would you take a trip like this again? (Why/Why not).

View from the bus

View from the bus

We glance at the expansive, dry, beautiful South African landscape from the bus windows.  As we pass through small villages we see women gathering water at the local water pump.  Most students write carefully and thoughtfully, some taking thirty minutes to answer the questions.  As the students fill out their papers, we three teachers (a teacher from another school, Eva, and I) answer the questions for ourselves and discuss together our responses and analyze whether we’ll organize a similar trip in a year.

Intent on identifying species

To fully determine whether it’s worth planning another trip, we consider the evaluations from the 18 students between our two schools, the results being very similar. 

Here are the responses of the ten students from my school:


“I would do a trip like this again because I feel like it is for a good cause by informing people of the importance of conservation and spreading awareness.  But I also feel like it would be more effective and enjoyable with a smaller group of people and a longer duration of trip.  I thought it was super fun/awesome/cool beanz but I would have liked more research to be involved”

“I would definitely make a trip like this again because I had a lot of fun on this trip.  From making new friends, to learning the most crazy stuff in the world.  I will keep a lot of great memories.  Can’t be more grateful that I could go on this trip.”

“Yes, good way to get a ‘vacation’ and hands on learning”

“Yes, because this is my second trip like this.”

“100%.   I learned so much from this trip and I think it’s an awesome and rewarding way to see a new place.  My eyes are now opened to new things, and if I had the opportunity to do something like this again, I definitely would.”

“The trip was amazing, and I got closer to the people I never really cared for too much before.  But I probably would not take a trip like this again.  Not only is it really expensive, but two weeks is not enough time in one of these beautiful locations, let only one.  I would definitely return to the places, thought most likely to Sodwana Bay”

Studying the remains of a newly hatched turtle.

“Absolutely!  It was one of the best experiences of my life.  I learned so much about the environment and myself”

“Yes, I would, because the knowledge I gained won’t fade.  Next trip I would do with people I know again.”

“Yes, I love this kind of work and I’d like to pursue my future jobs in this field.”

There were a total of five teachers on the trip and we discussed every step of the program together, being very critical of the educational component of the two-week adventure.  However, in retrospect, the students learned and gained so much from both the hands-on work as well as the lecture series.  Students took notes, asked questions, discussed, and never complained.  Students wanted more research and we, as teachers, agreed.  So, in planning for the future, I would ensure that the research would at least be better framed in context with the educational component, at least giving more meaning to the research.  Furthermore, I will look into sites that have a larger research component.  In talking with students and reading through their evaluations, we concluded that the trip was, indeed, a trip of a lifetime and that the lives of our students were definitely affected for the positive.  Powerful components of the experience included:

On the game transect on which we saw the black rhino (the rhino is in the top right hand corner). It was so fun to share such amazing experiences with my students.

  • Hands on experience with ecology
  • Application of content learned in the classroom in school, making it really “come alive”
  • Exposure to real field scientists
  • Access to a vast array of content in the fields of ecology and conservation
  • Interaction with interesting people who work in conservation
  • Amazing sites
  • Awareness of the need for conservation
  • Insight into different career paths
  • Global connectedness as far as working with people from all over the world and awareness of how what is happening in specific areas of the earth affects the rest of the world
  • Conviction of one’s own role in conservation and knowledge that individuals can make a difference

Yes, I’ll definitely plan another trip like this again. 

I’m currently considering two different groups with which I can conduct a trip.  Also, I’m deciding on the exact location as well.  I will decide by September!

South Africa 2014: Final Reflections on the marine experience

Diving and Lectures

The sand is cool and firm to our bare feet. The sun is cresting at the horizon. The air is chilled, untouched as of yet by the rising sun. Quite a bit of self-control is required to strip down to the swimsuit and to pull the cold damp wet suits onto our chilled bodies.  Some laugh nervously while others complain of the cold. The sea spreading out from the sand invites us to enter its dark and murky waters for a view of the amazing world beneath.

So far my reporting on this trip has been only partial: that of the dive certification program.  In another setting, several people in our group arrived on site with diving certification already complete.  These individuals began diving on the first day.  Their program was supposed to incorporate dive ecology and research into their experience.  However, it didn’t quite work out like we imagined.

The organization by Wallacea and the dive center wasn’t exactly coordinated to meet the specific needs of our group (divers and non-divers mixed) in the most efficient manner.  Thus, the divers would participate in a dive but then had 4-6 hours of free time at the beach and camp basically waiting for the rest of us to finish up.  According to the program emailed to me before departure, I thought they would be receiving the ecology course during that time.  For several reasons (short staffing, we were the first group of the season, etc.) the ecology lectures were reserved for the nighttime, after dinner.

The lectures were full of fascinating content, much of which pertained directly to what the divers were observing during their dives.  Furthermore, the certified divers were given tasks of identifying fish but the necessary information was delivered to them late at night as opposed to during the down time in the afternoon.  Thus, they didn’t benefit fully from either the lecture series or the information required for identification skills.  As educators, my fellow colleagues and I would have organized this aspect of the program entirely differently.

By the time the non-divers finished their certification requirements for the day and their homework, they were simply too exhausted to focus on and process the lecture series.  Additionally, it wasn’t as meaningful to them as to the certified divers since they hadn’t been in the ocean yet.

If I were to do a diving program again, I would definitely require everyone to complete or partially complete (at least through the open water dives) a PADI certification course.  If all students were on the same page, it would be more manageable for the instructors to oversee the time for all participants fully.  This is definitely the best way to maximize the benefits of such a “research” experience.   Coming already certified allows students to more quickly enter the research world of identification and species counts.


The students responded most to the conservation lectures, especially because these were more hands on.  These included:

  • An offsite tour of a shark conservation center and a brief, powerful lecture on the importance of sharks and their conservation.
  • A short presentation on the beach about the turtles of the Indian Ocean and the conservation needs surrounding these species.
  • A Dune Walk and discussion on the importance of the dunes and the botany of the coast
  • A Tide Pools survey in which students attempted to view and identify species found within the tide pools

Students did absorb knowledge from the learning opportunities presented to them at the marine site, as indicated in the evaluation responses:

“I learned so much about the tightly knit ecosystems in the ocean and that they really do affect humans a lot. I can make a difference”

“I found out that I cared about things that I hadn’t thought about before like eating seafood”

“I learned a lot more about how fragile the world is”

“My favorite part of the trip was my first open water dive, because it opened a whole new world for me”

“The open water dives changed my life thoroughly”

Our entire group.  In the end, everyone gained from the marine experience, regardless of final outcome.

Social Networking and Global Collaboration

Another aspect of the trip was the interaction of our students with each other as well as with students from other schools.  At camp students played cards and socialized.  During this week students from different school groups mixed and began to form friendships.  It would have been nice to have the groups mixed up during research expeditions in the bush to encourage meeting new people.  As a student wrote in the evaluation, “I gained a whole new social circle all around the world”.  Ecology is very much a global profession, requiring collaborations from every corner of the earth.  It’s powerful for students to experience with others from around the world and form opinions and convictions together.  The international element of conservation was reinforced by the fact that guides and lecturers came from not only South Africa but also Ireland, Germany, and the USA.


They were beautiful.  Girls and boys dressed in coordinated clothing.  Hair short.  Lean and energetic.  The music, whistles, and drums began and the singing and dancing commenced.  We were all captivated.  For our last night at Sodwana Bay we were favoured with a traditional Zulu dance number by local children.  The evening was very special and it made me long for more interactions such as this.  One of our students, in the evaluation, claimed this to be one of the most treasured experiences of the trip.


The experience at the marine site, though not what we anticipated, was definitely valuable, mostly from the standpoint of ecology and conservation awareness and its role on a global level.

South Africa 2014: My students ARE my peers

To complete our dive certification we must complete four open water (i.e. in the Indian Ocean) dives over two days. 

Our transfers to the beach occur between 6:15 and 7:15 a.m. with breakfast available from 5:30.  We are loaded like cattle into the pick-up trucks and herded to the beach.

The sun is up and, thankfully, is beginning to afford some warmth against the chilly morning.  The wet suits are cold, however we manage to pull them over our goose-bump riddled skin. We line up on the log facing the sun and looking at the expansive ocean beyond for our briefing.  The first dive is only an orientation. No skills will be expected as we simply experience the underwater world together for the first time. The remaining three open water dives will require us to repeat all the skills we completed in the pool. 

Preparing to launch our boat.  We walk beside it until it is afloat and then scramble into the boat for take-off.

We all perch at the edge of the boat, heavy with gear. The countdown for our rollback into the water is about to begin.  How will we feel once it’s time to actually roll over the edge backward into the ocean?  Are we ready?  We should be, we’ve completed all the proper checks.  The captain of the boat shouts, "1, 2, 3, go".  We all plunge backwards into the sea.  With our inflated BCDs, we bounce back to the surface. breathing through our regulators and realizing that so far everything is fine. 

Transport to and from dive site.  Near the dive site we put on all our gear (which is in the center of the boat during transport) and prepare to roll off the edge.  

Our instructor beckons us to the buoy that contains the line that will guide us to the bottom.  I position myself towards the back in case I have trouble equalizing.  We descend.  It's a bit murky but I can see the guideline.  Bubbles from those preceding me percolate upwards towards me.  The person in front of me is flailing and fins are hitting me in the face so I switch to the other side of the rope and experience significantly more calm.  I'm breathing fine.  I'm equalizing.  Everything is working.  Soon the ocean floor emerges below.  The others leave the rope and gather at a sandy spot near our instructor.  Coral and beautiful fish surround us.  Yes, we have entered a whole new world.  It's amazing.  It's calming, despite our chaotic presence.  Mostly I feel like I'm trying to avoid the kicking fins and flailing arms of my co-divers, my students.  It's interesting, in this situation, their role as “my students” has completely dissipated: they are currently my peers, as we are in this, learning and experiencing together. Yet, I still worry about them and hope they are all having a good first dive.   The thirty minutes flies by and I can't believe it's time to ascend.  We successfully surface. Finally we heave ourselves, with help, back onto the boat.  We are handed lollipops that are balm to the salty taste in our mouths.  We suck happily on our pops as the boat speeds us back to shore.  Everyone is smiling and everyone is feeling a sense of accomplishment, though we remain a bit reserved knowing that we still have to pass a skill set down in the ocean.

We have a two hour break before our second dive.  Mostly we spend it in the sun, soaking up some rays and getting warm. The first part of the second dive involves covering some skills at which we all are successful.  Then, we have some time to follow our instructor in observing the sights.  This is when we realize how fun it is to dive.  This is when we realize we probably WILL return to the water as a diver.  That afternoon we are asked to reflect on our dive experiences.  Our thoughts are similar and we share together.

The next day we complete our final two dives for certification.  Before the final dive, however, a few things happen.  A student loses his mask in the ocean.  An instructor attempts to find it to no avail.  Then, another student, all rigged up, loses his sense of balance and falls off the boat before we are at the actual dive site.  Ha ha.  So, he has to take off all his gear, board the goat, and re-rig himself.  Finally, in our pre-dive check it is discovered that a student did not properly check her oxygen tank and has rigged up an empty tank - she must wait on the boat for a replacement tank.  With all these mishaps I have no comment, after all, any of it could have happened to me.  Again, there is this strong sense that in this situation I stand on equal ground in every way with my students.  As co-students, we all turn to our dive instructors for guidance, questions, and help.  For all those able to complete the entire certification process, we are 100% successful!  Two people were unable to finish due to sickness or injury, however, I’m confident they will complete their certification this summer.

We are certified divers!

During our fun dive on the following day, we are significantly more relaxed as a group as we approach a dive as certified divers.  During the dive I receive a tap on my shoulder.  It’s my buddy signing to me asking for my air levels.  I signal back.  There’s my buddy.  My student.  My peer.  We are depending on each other to be there for one another and to make sure we both make it to the surface safely.

This transition from student/teacher to peer has been an interesting one. We’ve been able to get to know each other on a whole new level.  It makes me appreciate my students all the more.  They are delightful, fun, interesting, thoughtful, and trustworthy.  I advocate working with students on a non-school sponsored trip.   It’s eye-opening and rewarding.   I suspect that it builds foundations and relationships for years to come.

South Africa 2014: Students don’t give up and Teachers assess properly!

Preparing to roll back into the pool

We are zipping through our Open Dive Course and it is feeling good.  We finish off with the theory and prepare for our final confined water dive.  The impending swim without my mask is terrifying me but I proceed forth.  We roll backwards off the bench, a task the others were fearing, into the cold pool water.

Thankfully, the first task is, indeed, the maskless swim and my turn is first.  I am encouraged by the example of our teacher as he makes it seem so simple.  It is so much easier than the first exercise.  I actually feel relaxed about it and experience zero panic.  As soon as I'm finished I let the other people in my group know that it was easy by giving them the double OK signal.  Fortunately, everyone else ends with a double "OK" as well.   The rest of the confined water dive is a piece of cake.

We take our final exam and mark it.  One person in our group must retake but we'll do it later tonight.  So, most of us head to the beach to see that for the first time.  One student is remaining on site to finish up some skills that she couldn't complete in our earlier confined dives so I stay with her.

One student , Samantha (I have permission to use her name and photos) had been so overwhelmed with the mask task that she had exited the water the day before.  The experience had panicked and scared her to a point of tears.  Today she finished all the theory and testing with us and has only the confined water dives to complete, including both mask tasks. 

Samantha waits patiently for all the other groups to finish their confined water dives and then enters the frigid waters with the other students who were struggling with the mask.    They are a group of five.  The sun is beginning to set and the water is probably at its coldest.  Already, admiration builds within me as my own courage would wane if I were expected to enter the water this late in the day and face three confined water dives without my peers.  However, Samantha jumps in without hesitation, however, within minutes there are signs of her feeling cold.

I'm sitting in the sun.  It's warm and peaceful.  I watch carefully when it's Samantha’s turn to go, and am relieved that she easily completes the mask-removal skill that so befuddled her the day before.  Before a half hour has passed, all the other students have dropped out because they can’t work the mask or they are too cold.  Samantha, however, carries on, determined to catch up with the others in her group.  I watch the on goings around the pool and chat with the instructors.  It is relaxing and I am hoping the rest of our group is enjoying the beach and that Samantha will finish the confined water dives.  The temperatures drop with the setting sun and I seriously wonder if she can survive in the water to finish all the requirements. Task after task she completes with a steady eye on her goal.  She doesn’t deviate.  She’s asked if she wants to exit the pool before continuing but she declines.  Finally, diving instructor and successful student, both blue-lipped, exit the pool.  Samantha becomes the hero of the day as she has endured the frigid waters for longer than anyone else during this entire certification process, persevering to complete the tasks.  Everyone around the pool cheers her success.

That evening our student that required reassessment of the written exam, studies diligently in the mess hall.  Her peers surround her writing practice problems, quizzing her, and encouraging her.  Here is another student that won’t give up.  Surrounding her at other tables student groups socialize, play cards, and celebrate the end of the day.  However, this student pours over the dive manual and asks questions and seeks to master the content.  Later, the dive instructor takes her to a secluded place and gives her another opportunity to pass the exam.  She emerges triumphant and once again we have cause to celebrate.

These two students have set a great example today of determination.  Everyone in our group expresses admiration and is genuinely congratulatory.  We all feel good. 

Students studying from their dive manuals in the mess hall, even though there will be no grade assigned to the HW.

On another note, we have not earned grades in dive certification.  Though we all have homework, no one received a grade for it.  The homework was utilized to determine what else we needed to learn.  There was a set of skills and a specific amount of knowledge to be mastered.  SIMPLE.  No one was ranked.  Everyone simply had to master the skills to move on.  This is the climate we should achieve in the “regular” classroom in schools.  Create environment wherein no one gives up.  Foster an atmosphere in which everyone is motivated to continue until skills and content are mastered.  Build in time for all to complete the tasks.  Provide extra support so all will succeed.  Praise perseverance and hard work.  Of course, in the end, this leads me back to one of my favorite subjects.  We need to assess students on what they know and can do.  Period.  In diving, you need to know the skills so that you do not die underwater.  Thus, it would have been ridiculous to “pass” someone simply because he/she completed all the homework, worked hard, had a good attitude, and was focused in every lesson.  While those skills are important, they don’t necessarily add up to being a good diver and it would be ethically irresponsible to pass someone based on those criteria.  Needless to say, I advocate a similar approach to education in schools! 

Cheers to determined students and proper assessments!  

South Africa 2014: Students and Teachers in this together

My mixed feelings continue.  We enter the frigid pool once again for the second confined dive.  The cold is so unpleasant that I just feel like I'm suffering through the experience.  The first task we undertake is to remove our mask for one minute under water.  I find this absolutely terrifying and am suppressing panic for the entire minute.  What a strange sensation to continue breathing with the regulator but have water creep into my nostril spaces.  It takes me some time to process exactly what I am doing to maintain a no panic status.  I am breathing deeply in and then pushing air out through my mouth and nose while keeping my eyes closed.  That seeping sensation into my nostrils is most uncomfortable and unsettling.  Then, I need to put the mask on and clear it.  Again, suppressed panic.  I dare to open my eyes, fearing that I haven't cleared the mask and to my relief, it is clear.  I give the "OK" signal.  After the mask task, the rest seems easy.  One of our students has exited the water over the mask task.  Apparently there are several students from the different groups that have difficulty with the mask task.

With our instructor

During the pre-dive debriefing when we are discussing buddy diving and sharing air the dive instructor tells us, "You always look out for yourself first.  Never share your regulator with your buddy.  They ran out of air so you shouldn't risk your life for them.  That's when I realize I probably shouldn’t be diving with anyone that I care about.  I’d probably give my regulator to anyone in this group.

Well, we finish the rest of the confined dive and eagerly exit the water seeking sunshine, warmth and lunch.  Then, another lecture and quizzes.  It is a relief to have another day behind us. 

Doubt about the entire certification process consumes me.  Why am I even doing this?  Will I ever dive again?  12 years ago I did complete a dive certification program but it was not as thorough as this one and it’s as though I hadn’t done it.  The fear factor is just so huge now.  The need to “put up a front” for my students has disintegrated.  I openly share my fears with them as they do theirs.  Truly, we’re in this together.

Fish after fish after fish are flashing before my eyes on the PPT shining on the wall in the mess hall.  I've lost focus.  I can't keep them apart.  It is just another fish as far as I'm concerned.  The kids are zoned out.  This is probably most interesting to the kids that have actually been diving and have seen these fish.

Fear is tearing through me regarding the first open water dive.  We have to repeat all the tasks we've completed in closed water and I completely dread it: that mask task.  What if someone panics in the ocean???  Again, doubt fills my mind and I just cannot focus on this fish lecture, despite the fact that they are, indeed, seriously cool.  Parrot fish.  Trigger fish.  Seriously?  4 types of trigger fish?  and all different by markings.  "Our Snappers", he says.  They are pelagic.  What the hell is pelagic?  Oh, Open water.  But seriously, there are two snappers on the screen and they look so different in shape and color - I can't imagine being able to put those two in the same family.  Now there are 4 more snapper fish on a new slide: humpback, yellow, twin-spot, blue banded.  Fish, fish, fish and more fish.  On to the surgeonfish.  I cannot look at another picture of a fish.  Thank goodness, now he's talking about conservation of herbivores.

Why not put out some fish I.D. cards for the students and have them practice identifying fish???  That would have been so much better. They need some hands on activity that engages them.

We got lucky in that the staff seemed to notice that the students were completely ZONED and the second lecture was cancelled.  Even the chaperones thrilled to be done with the lectures.  None of us could take any more.  There’s something about being really active all day in the outdoors and sun, finishing off a healthy dinner, and then settling down for a lesson.  What can I learn from this?  We, as teachers, definitely need to be aware of our students’ activities and exam schedules if we want to help them optimize their learning time.  And, the value of hands on, engaging work is forever engraved into my mind.

South Africa 2014: Students and teachers morphing into peers

Up at 4:15 a.m., bags out on the gravel in the dark by 4:45 a.m.  Grab some meager breakfast and pile into the jeeps by 5:00 a.m.  Off we go on the bumpy dirt road taking us back to Hoedspruit.  For our final sighting we see 3 spotted hyenas – a great way to end our time in the Bush.  Then I doze the rest of the way.  We board luxurious busses to begin our journey to Sodwana Bay.

The tents at Sodwana Bay - for students and teachers alike.

We arrive early evening and are shown our tents.  We are camping.  Dinner and orientation.  We are divided into groups based on our diving experience: Group A consists of the experienced divers; Group B contains the referral divers (they’ve completed most of their certification; Group C is designed for non-divers, or the snorkelers; and finally, Group C, of which I’m a member, is reserved for those of us seeking to complete diver’s certification.  Finally, we settled into a good night’s sleep before we begin our coastal experience.

The training pool with the classroom behind.

Inside the classroom

In the morning the certified and referral divers as well as the snorkelers head to the coast where they begin diving.  The rest of us are escorted into "the classroom" at the dive center which is a rounded one-room building with a thatched roof - very "beachy". Inside the walls and floor are all exposed wood reinforcing that "beachy" feeling. Wet-suits hanging from the rafters and draped over chairs and benches confirm that we are at a diving center.  Fins, masks, and snorkels are placed around the room awaiting the return of this week's user.  We seat ourselves on benches around a large square wooden picnic table that takes up most of the space in the room. Our attention is directed to the small T.V. at the front of the room. Videos #1 and #2 are our assignment.  We pull out our dive manuals to follow along with the video. There I sit with my students who are now my peers.

Most of our group outside on the deck of the scuba center.  This is where we received our lectures.

Our video session is followed by a "lecture" outside on the deck of the scuba center. Our instructor is a sarcastic 50+ scraggly blond man who happens to be a manager of the dive center. I have to admit, I'm impressed with his knowledge of physics as it relates to diving. Furthermore, he explains things really well, using analogies and spatial activities that involve us standing up and walking around, mimicking various aspects of a dive. Despite his gruff personality, he's actually a good teacher. 

Some of us in the water during our "confined water dive".

It is our turn in the pool for our first confined water dive. The water is frigid. Several of us are shivering. Can I just clarify that I HATE cold? As my body rattles under water I'm doubting the selection of a winter location for this "summer research expedition".  I question whether this is "worth it" but I attempt a smile for my students.  But actually I hate this experience because I'm so cold. However, our group all completes the confined water skills and a small sense of satisfaction begins to swell within me.

Students and teacher (that's me) climb out of the pool and laughing together we share our thoughts regarding our first underwater experience with scuba gear. We are on the same level, experiencing and learning together. I don't know if they feel it yet, but I am a student with them.  

The best part of the day is the hot, and I mean hot, outdoor shower!  The luxury shower assigned to teachers is attached to the site leader's house.  It is surrounded by a high stucco wall.  Huge potted plants hang down over the sides and trees and bushes spring up all around.  The area is spacious and includes a sink and toilet in addition to the shower.  The most amazing feature is that when I turn on the water, hot water pours out. For the first time during the entire South African experience, there is necessity to turn the cold water knob in the shower.

In the evening, we meet back in the mess hall and the divers and snorkelers tell of their experiences.  The snorkelers are definitely the most enthusiastic of the students.  They have seen manta ray and humpback whales!  It is now noticeable that the different school groups are, indeed, mixing and friendship are forming.

Following our curry dinner (chicken or vegie) with beet salad we receive our first ecology reef lecture.  Though it is interesting, it is tiring to sit through a lecture at the end of the day.  Along with the students, the teachers struggle to maintain attention and that night everyone slips into the sleeping bags eager for rest.  

South Africa 2014: Final Reflections on the Bush Experience

We ended our time in the Bush with some additional time around camp and repeated research experience in which groups participated either in bird counts, game transects, or habitat assessments. 

I must add, that additional time around camp included a dung spitting contest in which nearly our entire group participated.  Yes, apparently South Africans participate in such competition that includes placing a dried pellet from impala or kudu in your mouth and shooting it out as far as one can. 

Of course, on a repeat experience of research the students are significantly more skilled and are able to actually complete the tasks with minimal assistance.  It is during these last two days that leaves me contemplating the value of staying in one location for a longer period of time.  Just as the students are accustomed to the location, the people, each other, and the research, we are uprooting and going to an entirely new site.

When the lion was spotted, staff called others to come and look and before we knew it, there were another 4 trucks filled with excited students and staff observing at the lion.  So, it is a special event :), much like the black rhino that we saw on the game transect. 

The staff shared with us that they were really appreciative of the hard work our students put into the research. They then proceeded to share the belief that "The Bush will show you what it wants to show you.  Just 5 minutes ago we were talking among ourselves discussing what a hard-working group you are and we had said, 'but is it enough for the bush to show them a lion’ and here it is.  The bush has deemed you worthy of a lion sighting”. 

I turned to the students and said, "Wow, you've seen everything!" To which the response was, "I still haven't seen a leopard".   I wanted to shout from the jeep top, "But you've seen hippo, impala, kudu, nyala, crocodiles, warthogs, a host of interesting birds, giraffe, elephant, rhinos, and lion!!!!!!" Hippos and crocodiles were residing in our backyard!   A host of species walked through and came down to water at the river!  Isn't that enough?!?!?!?!  In all fairness, the students were excited by all that they had seen and experienced.

Our final night in the bush the students present, in groups why a certain species is most important to South Africa.  Our students present first and do a truly fantastic job on "grass" and "termite hills" -- they have taken the assignment seriously and have done a truly awesome job.  The staff all exclaim "awesome" or "terrific" after their presentations.  The grass group has put together a very creative dramatization and the termite group has a great drawing that serves as a center and constant visual as each person speaks.  I wish I had video of their presentations.  My colleague, Eva, and I were duly impressed. 

Again, it is clear from all the presentations that students were thinking outside of the box and that they had stretched themselves and their minds through their experience in the bush.  The value of hands-on, real-experience learning is glaringly apparent.  Noteworthy is the fact that so much learning was attained without the use of any digital devices.  I am left pondering how I might make every lesson like a classroom in the bush.  To bring the topic alive, to generate original thought and opinions, to value all life, to fill with purpose – those would, indeed, be desirable goals for a classroom.  

Student thoughts on what they learned:

"I learned so much from the trip...My eyes are now opened to new things..."

"I learned a lot about conservation, the issues involved with it and how to make it (conservation) for successful.  I also learned that I want something different from my life than I originally thought."

"I learned that conservation is a daily battle.  And it is fought not just in the parks but in the hearts and minds of people"

Our entire group with all the staff at Struwig.

South Africa 2014: Bugs, Habitat Assessment, and Trophy Hunting

When sitting on the peaceful banks of the Olifants river we are serenaded by a multitude of birdcalls that we cannot identify as well as the laughing echos of the local hippo herd.  However, it is mostly quiet as the river flows gently by.  The setting sun still offers warmth.  This winter day has been HOT, probably 30 degrees C, far warmer than any summer day in the Netherlands, a country that feels so far away from this beautiful South African setting.

A morning lecture on herbivores was quite good, despite the lecture format.  I even took notes as it went outside of my expertise and was extremely interesting.  These creatures of Africa are simply amazing.  As one student wrote in her evaluation, “Orla taught me a lot about adaptations in animals that I didn’t know before (like elephants)…” and another wrote, “I looked forward to the lectures from Orla”.  I’m so proud of our students for adapting to this new format of learning.

Following the lecture, students were faced with more practical work on insects.  Even though the entomologist had mentioned the word "mounting" several times in the context of her lectures, as she handed out the foam boards and pins, it was clear the students didn't really know what they were in for.  It wasn't until she started passing out the beetles and wasps that a look of understanding swept across their faces.  Expressions of surprise, shock, even horror, and a few big, wide grins were visible in their expectant faces.  She walked them through the procedure and all of them successfully completed the task.  They were triumphant at the neat pinning of their wings.  Then, off to collect the insects from the traps that were set yesterday.  All were surprised by the NUMBERS of little creatures!

In the afternoon we embark on a habitat assessment study, one of the main reasons we are here.  The sun beats upon us, nearly blinding us.  The students are flushed and sweaty, frequently sipping their water.  Caz carefully explains the plan but it takes awhile for each student to understand exactly what he or she is supposed to do.  The marking of the transect alone takes half an hour as students begin to comprehend the transect map, our relationship to the transect map, and exactly where they'd be taking the data.  One student manages the compass, another the rope, and another the posts and hammer. Finally the transect is complete and data collection can begin.  Another discombobulated attempt as students try to decide who will record, who will measure height and width for the trees, who will measure the woody contact, etc.  However, once they are done they feel accomplished.  Several claim that this is the favorite activitiy they have undertaken on the trip.  The data sheets demonstrate the work completed.

On the way back to camp, we see a lioness sunning herself on the banks of the Olifants!

At night a debate weighing the pros and cons of Trophy Hunting is conducted.  Students number off in ones and twos.  Then they combine with their number and are assigned a side of the debate.  After twenty minutes, four speakers are selected and face off across tables from each other.  Opening statements set the stage.  Counter arguments are presented.  Members of each team sitting at the sides can raise their hands and contribute to the debate.  They are making good points on both sides.  The staff have appeared to keep their opinions off the table but have stepped in to advise each side of the debate.  It is interesting and students clearly are put in a position to consider what they think of trophy hunting.  However, as an educator, I think this event would have been more significant to the students and more effective had the students been given articles to read and a small assignment on the topic before even coming to South Africa.  Regardless, the thinking is deep and any Theory of Knowledge (TOK) teacher would have been thrilled with the night.

As the debate draws to a close, the African winter night temperatures settle in and send us scurrying for our sleeping bags and beds eager for another day in the bush.

South Africa 2014: Learning from Bushmen

We began with a bushwalk with our South African guide Warren.  He is a soft-spoken man with a ginger beard and ginger curls looping from under his safari hat.  He carries his weapon with ease though you know if he were on his own he wouldn’t take it.  He walks carefully and stealthily, listening and observing with expertise far beyond ours.  Gavin, an older grey haired gentleman accompanies us but has deferred to Warren as the lead guide on this hike.

There is something comforting and amazing about walking with people who are so self-assured in the bush.  They "read" the ground and the bushes inferring who's passed through recently.  Their ability to spot and identify tracks is unmatchable.  Animals camouflaged in the bush and standing hundreds of meters from us do not escape their scrutinizing eyes.

Looking at the effect of elephants foraging on this mimosa tree as well as about the tree's medicinal activity.

We walk in single file.  Silence.  Only the crunching of dry grass and branches beneath our feet.  The morning South African sun is just appearing overhead and hasn't yet dispelled its power upon us.  Warren stops and outlines some tracks in the road for us: a honey badger.  A feisty, aggressive, incredible animal he comments.  In fact, he’s seen a honey badger chase off lions!  Clearly, he could go on all day about this unusual king of the savanna woodland.  However, he smiles and questions, "Shall we continue?"  We veer up the hillside and Warren pauses to share with us deliciously smelling herbal plants.  One of them has a peachy basil scent while the other is similar to aniseed.  Instruction on the antihistamine action of the South African Mimosa tree is delivered.  Warren's observed an elephant take the bark and rather than eat it, stamp on it and suck it up through its nose!  He also had a terrible wasp sting in the bush once and went to the tree, cutting out a bit of the cambium, adding some spit and rubbing it on the growing blister.  He said it immediately relieved him of any pain and itching followed by a reduction of the swelling faster than any cream he'd ever used.

Onward we go.  Silently.  Single file.  Looking.  Scanning.  Grey monkeys leap around in the trees ahead of us.  A multitude of unique birds sing and fly around us.  A magnificent Kudu stares at us from across the valley.  We pause to appreciate this majestic creature before advancing up the hill.  Seeing the recent droppings of a buffalo Warren and Gavin share experiences of their encounters with this creature.

The countryside, as yet, remains untouched by man and looks pretty much like it did thousands of years ago.  Stunning and beautiful it expands out beyond what we can see.  At the top of the hill we shed ourselves of our jackets as the sun begins to heat us up.  We speak in hushed voices.  Truly, we are in awe.  Then, once again in single file, we are led by our armed and knowledgeable guards back to camp.

After lunch an insect lecture and practical is presented to the students.  It's not as organized as the others but the practical side of trapping interests the students.  They eagerly shove their gloved hands into the centers of elephant, hippo, and rhino dung, preparing traps for dung beetles.  They check on butterfly traps, ground traps and a malaise trap.  They are informed that tomorrow collection, mounting and identification of their specimens will occur.

While sitting quietly during our breaks we continue to observe from our campsite on the Olifants river animals coming to water.  Stunning to watch a giraffe  fling water into the air as he raised his head.  Kudu and waterbuck drink side by side.  A warthog is rolling in the sand.  Impala lurk furtively at the edge of bush cover.   On the sandy beach a crocodile suns.   Buffalo, hippo, spur fowl, and baboons pass across the grassland in front of the campsite.  The views from the campsite alone are simply sensational.  It's shocking how matter-of-fact you can regard hippo, crocodile, and impala on your back doorstep.

The power of quiet observation is consuming my thoughts.  Why is it that, earlier in the day, during our morning bush walk, did we have an urge to speak as soon as we began to move?  How is it that we are unequipped to simply be silent?  How do we instil a value of being still?  How do we develop a value of listening?  How do we foster the value of observation?  How do we establish a value of respect down to each step we take?  How does one teach and instil these principles?  Such skills would be immediately useful back in life at home and in the classrooms this coming fall.  I need to determine how to incorporate such mindfulness into my curriculum. 

Any suggestions?  Please comment below!

South Africa 2014: Data Collection in the Bush

Orla - a dynamic woman with a lot of knowledge, experiences, and insight to share.

Student evaluation response

To have a lecture in the morning turns out to be a treat because we don’t have to be ready until 8:00 as opposed to 6:30 for field work.  This day begins with a bird lecture.  Though the presenter is animated and passionate, the lecture style is not how I teach nor is it anything our students are accustomed to.  The content is incredible and full of amazing and fascinating information but it is difficult for the students to process and remember it all, especially the language learners from the other school.

If it were me, I’d make sure each student had a laminated copy of every bird they were likely to encounter in the field.  Then, I’d play the bird calls and have them identify the bird fitting the song by holding up the laminated copy of the correct bird.  Likewise, they could practice the names of the birds in a similar manner.  Furthermore, the copies could be compiled with a ring and carried into the field.  All of the other educators share similar views and we discuss it out of ear shot of the students.  Later, we include details in our evaluation.  I wonder if I could get a job in the summers providing curriculum development for such programs. 

I question whether my students realize why we care about birds.  Did they glean from the lecture that birds are indicator species and a diverse ranges of species indicates a healthy ecosystem?  They are well-studied, abundant, and apparent.  If there is a disturbance the birds will respond in a linear fashion and are closely related to other species in the ecosystem.  Finally, they are easy to census due to their color, vocals, and popularity.  Do my students realize how important the upcoming bird counts are?  As with the other teachers, we all think this could be emphasized more for our students.

Searching for those birds

Well, even though the students struggled to be quiet for the lecture, they managed and then, as we went into the field, they were diligent in searching and seeking to identify birds.  Another point I would say to anyone embarking on such an adventure, you must have a set of binoculars.  Any student who didn’t have binoculars definitely missed out on both smaller species as well as the big game.

Daniella teaching the group what skills they will need for the game transect data collection.

Following a delicious lunch of potato wedges and vegies, we were assigned our first real data collection outing: a game transect.   Our guide, Daniella, prepped the students on their tasks. The recorder would need to write down each species identified as well as adult/juvenile and male/female numbers.  Another person would be responsible for the GPS device to announce the coordinates of the location of any given species.  Finally, a student was responsible for the compass to identify in which direction and how far from the truck each species was identified.  The plan was to drive a specified route at a specified speed and identify every species observed.

A small amount of pride swells within me as I realize my students will have no difficulty with this task as they are very accustomed to lab/field work, utlilzing measuring devices, and conducting proper recording of observed data.


The students jostle silently in the back of the truck with their eyes peeled toward the bush, straining to see any creatures that might be hiding.  If one spots an animal they exclaim as quietly as possible so that the student at the helm will tap on the roof of the cab to signal the guide to stop the truck so the count can be conducted and recorded.  Daniella is impressed with their ability to spot game and they high five each other quietly with broad smiles, even more determined to identify everything possible. We continue on, in total over two hours.

The Black Rhino

We are incredibly fortunate as we come across a black rhino, 4 bull elephants, 3 white rhinos, giraffe, and a whole host of other species.  Daniella is absolutely thrilled with the black rhino sighting, so much so, that she calls in their other guides so that they and all the university students can observe this amazing and critically endangered animal.

Student evaluation response.

Who could have known that data collection could be so exciting? 

South Africa Trip 2014: Teaching and Learning in the Bush

The location of this place is amazing.  All along the camp there are look out points facing over the Olifants river.  In the morning we easily spot the hippos that had been “laughing” at us the previous night and the crocodiles that have settled onto the sandy riverside to sun them selves.  Additionally, we see spur foul families running around just outside the fence line.

The students stagger out of their cabins at 6:25 a.m., it's clearly too early for them.  They manage to grab the simple breakfast before climbing into the jeeps.  They munch on their fruit and toast in the 1 degree Celsius air as we head off into the early morning sun of the Woodland Savanna with hopes of spotting game.  Within 100 m of the electric fence our guide already spots evidence: tracks of elephant, giraffe, and baboon.  We learn that elephants eat over 200 kg of food per day and that their huge feet have cartilage in between the toes that helps the feet spread apart to better support the weight of their gigantic heads.  Due to their poor digestive systems, they poop every 1/2 hour to keep things moving.  They travel 5-6 km/hr yet they can stop in a location and graze for hours at a time.

guinea fowl

Additionally, we hear all kinds of bird calls, this morning particularly, the scrub robin.  We patiently look through our binoculars hoping to spot interesting fowl.  One student can't be bothered by the birds and sleeps heavily through a lot of the ride, leaning over on his flanking classmate and teacher (haha--that's me).  We sight the following fowl: Red and Yellow Hornbull, Glossy Starling, Doktail drongo, Gray Go Away Bird (lots and lots), and Guinea Fowl.

Kudo hiding inthe bush.  Photo by  Chanthea de Jonge

Furthermore, 2 water buck, Impala, a HUGE male Kudo (horns 1.5 m long) and later a smaller male Kudo with a female (probably his mother) are to be seen.

A female Koki Franklin on the road is unusually uninhibited by our jeep.  And then we spot her 1-day old chick that she is trying to protect.

GIRAFFE! A big beautiful old male crosses our path twice on different occasions, the second time he walks right in front of us on the trail.  Towards the end of our ride we spot an additional lone giraffe.

Three electrical towers house some baboons.  This is an example wherein animals have utilized the structures of humans to seek higher “ground” for watching out for danger.

A bachelorhood of Impala, Bushbuck, and Steenbok are also part of our morning.

It's an amazing ride and everyone is elated by the end of our journey.  The temperatures are rising and we have some free time before lunch.  We take a hike to the lookout tower where we enjoy a warm and relaxing time with our binoculars studying all that passes by.

During lunch we spot AT OUR CAMP SITE, a huge impala herd by the water, a giraffe coming down to drink, warthogs, and the usual hippos and crocodile.  It is amazing to me that already within one day hippos and crocodile can feel commonplace!  THERE ARE HIPPOS IN OUR BACKYARD! 

student evaluation response

student evaluation response

Orla delivers a very good lecture on biodiversity following lunch.  I watch these young enthusiasts and think how fun their jobs are!  I could teach under these circumstances!!!  During the break we spot more bushbuck and waterbuck by the water --- and, of course, the hippos and crocodile and the warthogs!

Enjoying some sun and the view from our campsite, just outside the lecture and dining area

I find I’d rather grab my binoculars than a camera and so, I'm afraid I'm not collecting any amazing pictures but I’m storing so much to my memory of these amazing sites that appear before me in my binoculars.

Then, a lecture on tree anatomy and a little practical on tree identification.  The students eagerly study the trees assigned to them and pour over the field manuals to properly identify their species.  They do quite well and we get compliments on how amazing this group is :)  I love these students.

Student evaluation response

The night lecture on snakes, scorpions, and spiders is captivating, given by Caz, a a tough and interesting superwoman.  Her lecture is accompanied by hyena calls and hippo calls from outside the fence of our camp She herself has been bitten numerous times by ticks and sac spiders and been spit at by a spitting cobra-----and had so many experiences with friends and acquaintances with all kinds of other bites.   We are captivated by neurotoxic, cytotoxic, and haemotoxic spiders, scorpions, and snakes.  A deep respect for the Bush and its hazards settles over us as this evening draws to a close.  Before slipping into bed, I’m tempted to check for spiders, scorpions, and snakes.  My colleague and I laugh at our fears and easily fall asleep, eager for the next day.

South Africa Trip 2014: Leaving Home (Days 1-2)

“How easy it was for me to be away from home”

-student response to the question  “What surprised you most about the trip?

At Schiphol airport, ascending the escalator to check in!

photo courtesy of Chanthea de Jonge

With a huge smile, each drops his/her bag as we gather at the red and white cube, known as "The Meeting Point" in the Amsterdam Schiphol airport.  Others come with a trolley heavy laden with luggage.   Parents greet us with warmth and excitement on behalf of their children and linger about with anticipation of the departure.

It isn’t a school trip.  Yet, my students surround me.  It isn’t a field trip either, yet I carry responsibility. 

Our expedition has been organized through the Opwall Wallacea group, a non-for profit research organization that includes both university and high school level students in their projects.  We are headed to South Africa to participate in studies involving, among other things, the assessment of the effect of elephants on the ecosystem of a private reserve in the  greater Kruger area.  The scientific component and anticipated lecture series of this program thrills me, excites parents, and makes the students somewhat leery of the trip.  My current and future biology students will experience many links to the curriculum.  The chemistry and physics students will be exposed to a new aspect of science.

in Cairo, waiting.

photo courtesy of Chanthea de Jonge


By 13:30 the last of the 12-person group had arrived and the expedition was ready to proceed.  Good-byes.  Check-in.  Passport control.  Security.  We are truly on our way!  Our group of 12 (ten students plus two teachers) remains together for our 15-hour journey to Johannesburg, South Africa that includes a 2-hour layover in Cairo. 

We emerge in Johannesburg somewhat bleary-eyed but surprisingly rested despite our overnight flight.  After securing a phone card and cash, we find the Wallacea group.  Two other school groups are there, both international schools from Shanghai, China.  Our students check-out and size-up these other students.  Will they become friends? 

In the open pick-ups heading to our destination of the Balule Reserve.

photo courtesy of Chanthea de Jonge


We are loaded into tour busses and are combined with one of the other schools.  As we pull into Hoedspruit, pick-up trucks stand in readiness for us.  Neutrally clad individuals with lilting South African accents organize all participants into the open  pick-ups.  Why is it inherently exciting to be sitting in an open topped vehicle tearing off on dirt roads through the bush?    Dust swirls behind us as we are jostled about in the back of the vehicle.  The jeep slows as we pass by lions, giraffe, and bushbok, forshadowing of what lies ahead of us. 

The 6-bunk room for the girls.  We only brought six girls so they all roomed together.

Two hours of bumping around and rapidly dropping temperatures leaves us all eager for arrival at the camp.  Finally, our jeeps pass through the voltage-gated fence.  It’s dark so we can’t see the river that runs past the camp, however, we can hear the hippos ‘laughing’.  We partake of a delicious dinner under an open-aired grass-thatched roof. Toby delivers his orientation and distributes the students into the 6-bunk rooms.  They quickly decide who will sleep where and have already organized their shelves with an excited fury. 

Despite over 20 hours of travel with 10 teenagers, we are happy!  The students are simply great to be with!

To our utter surprise the teachers’ are allocated cabins with sheeted beds and blankets.  My colleague and I are so proud of our students and their flexibility and ability to travel this great distance without even getting temperamental.  And we are really pleased with our housing situation.  We all settle down into our accommodations and students and teachers alike can hardly wait for the morning sun to rise.

Student Trips

“Ah, I can breath easily now.  They are all here.”

The Danish sun has warmed our faces as we waited for the students to gather.  They’ve been given two hours, in pairs or groups, to eat lunch and meet us at the end of the pedestrian zone.  We, as teachers monitor the zone, watch people,  and chat but we always have the students on our minds.  There’s a relief when we see a couple of them wander by or go into a restaurant, even if it is McDonalds, and sit down.  You know exactly where they are and that they’re safe.

We slowly count the students as they meander towards us.  They are happy with stomachs now filled and having enjoyed the short time to self-govern themselves.  99% of the time the students are well behaved, careful, and rule abiding.  However, it’s always a relief when they all accounted for.  So, I understand my colleagues quiet exclamation and sigh of relief. 

This trip is a bit different for me as I came in the role of parent rather than chaperone.  However, my husband is one of the coaches and I have taught or am currently teacher to 12 of the 14 students in tow.  Thus, I naturally find myself in a chaperoning role for two reasons.  One, I genuinely care about the students and two, they associate me as one of the chaperones because I am their teacher. Thus, I also share my colleague’s feelings.

Students from this school year's trip week to Berlin at a location along the former wall.

There are many reasons teachers find themselves on overnight trips with students.  A major one is trip week: a rather common occurrence in international schools across the world.  Generally speaking, the purpose is to acquaint students with and help them gain a greater appreciation for their host country/region.

Students with my colleague and me  in the arctic circle for our CanSat trip.  

There are overnight trips associated with extracurricular activities such as Mini United Nations (MUN) and Global Issues Network (GIN).  Or for example, the trip I took with IB students to the Arctic Circle for the CanSat competition.  And, of course the countless journeys that coaches undertake for meets, games, and tournaments.  For me, as a science teacher most of my trips are limited to trip week.

Being a chaperone on an overnight student trip carries a lot of responsibility.  Parents have entrusted the care, well-being, and safety of their children with you.  As such, it’s not a restful experience, no matter how wonderful the students are.  You’re always on the alert, always hoping they are well and safe, both under your own eyes and especially during “free time” you give them.

Students on our "walking tour" in Copenhagen this morning.

On this trip the coaches were busy with the athletes all day at the meet and then late into the evening on Saturday night as the students attended the local amusement park, Tivoli.  So, to help them out, I scouted a walking route we could do with the students on Sunday morning before our departure, ensuring there were restaurants for the students to have lunch before traveling.  I walked the entire route and planned some alternative activities (if we had loads of time, for example, there was a canal tour of Copenhagen that would have been a viable option) if we needed.  Because, the more structured the days are, the less likely students will get bored and ‘into trouble’ and thus, the easier it is to chaperone.  Additionally, building in some free time is also greatly appreciated by secondary students.  So, today we followed the route and allowed students time to eat in an eatery of choice in the pedestrian zone, yielding a positive ending to the Copenhagen track and field adventure.

Students amused by street entertainment in Copenhagen this morning.

This group of students is equally amazing on a personal level as on the track and field.  They are cheerful, obliging, and cooperative.  So, it is a smooth morning.  Then, we travel by train and plane and are greatly relieved once all students are safely delivered to their homes.

It is definitely worth the time and effort to schedule and plan for such events for students.  To meet, mingle and compete with pupils from other schools and other parts of the world contributes to the globally minded education we are so committed to deliver.