September 9, 2008

Teacher’s Coral Adventures in Belize Provides Inspiration for Her Students

By Amy Moellering VALLEY TIMES

AT BACK-TO-SCHOOL NIGHT, parents of students in Jennifer O'Shea's dual-immersion class at Valley View Elementary School in Pleasanton enjoyed more than an overview of the year ahead. Their fifth- graders, in just the first week of school, had been introduced to the coral reefs of Belize and had created an art gallery recording their impressions.

"It looks like veins in your body," wrote one student after examining a coral polyp.

These students have only just begun to reap the benefits of their teacher's experiences at the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve near Belize. O'Shea spent eight days there in July, with other American teachers, studying the health of coral reefs in the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.

Earthwatch Institute, the world's largest environmental nonprofit volunteer organization, runs 130 such expeditions in 40 countries. O'Shea first found out about Earthwatch through her college roommate's brother. She knew immediately that she was interested and began typing essays for the summer expeditions, "in the middle of winter with a blanket around me."

Although educators specify the subject area they would like to study, they don't choose their location. When O'Shea found out she was assigned to Belize, she was thrilled.

"I'm a warm water kind of gal," she said. "Plus, I knew that anything with plants and the ocean would be easily relatable to the fifth-grade curriculum."

O'Shea's trip was made possible through a couple of awards she received -- the Juanita Haugen Memorial Scholarship and the De Witt Wallace Endowment.

Life at the island's research station was very basic. The University of Belize provided dorms that consisted of a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom.

The program supervisor's mother traveled each day from a neighboring island to cook for the crew.

"It was a lot of rice and beans," O'Shea said, "but also a lot of fresh fish."

Each morning the teachers attended class; they studied the reef's ecosystems and how to assess coral health.

"It was fun to be a student again," O'Shea said. "We all had our flash cards and by the second day could identify 30 types of coral."

Every afternoon the class would split into teams, board boats and tra vel to the monitoring sites where they would take and photograph coral samples, recording their findings on underwater data sheets. The teachers also measured water quality, assessing oxygen levels, salinity and pH.

Changes in ocean depths and water temperatures create stress for the coral, causing them to lose pigment. By monitoring the extent of coral bleaching, researchers can begin to understand the effects of global warming and find ways to preserve these crucial ecosystems.

"The lessons on climate changes tie in best to what we teach in the classroom," O'Shea said. The primary lesson she will stress to her students concerns environmental choices and responsibility.

"What we do with our water supply in Pleasanton affects the ocean and the water supply in other parts of the world," she said.

That fact was reinforced when the teachers visited the other side of the island.

"Where we stayed it was beautiful," said O'Shea, "but on the other side the beaches were covered with trash. We were particularly amazed with how much plastic there was." The teachers held clean-up sessions, but they could not stop the currents that brought in trash daily.

O'Shea took pictures, which she showed to her students. She has applied for grants that will allow her to provide a water canteen for each of her students so they can reduce plastic consumption.

Later this year she is planning a field trip to the California Academy of Science to show students the indoor coral reef.

"There's a broad range of experience among my students. Some have never seen anything like coral before and at first seemed a little confused, whereas others take yearly snorkeling trips and know a lot." she said.

"The Earthwatch experience taught me that you can make positive changes in your corner of the world that will make a difference," O'Shea said. "It fired me up to inspire my students to make a difference, too."

Amy Moellering welcomes stories about our local schools. Reach her at [email protected]

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