For the past 10 days, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Belize with teachers from the Boston area and colleagues from BU and participate in a hands-on curriculum design workshop with teachers from Belize. We spent five days at La Milpa, in the rainforest and another five days at Calabash Caye on the coastal coral reef. We got to see amazing animals, plants, and landforms, learn about the ecosystems there, and work together to create lesson plans that could convey some of that information to our students back home in Boston and also to students who live in Belize.
We met at 6AM in our first day at La Milpa to do some birding around the grounds. We each had a set of binoculars and a birding guide to share. We saw some amazing birds, including a keel billed tucan, the national bird of Belize. After breakfast we headed out for a hike through the forest on the grounds, with our incredible guide Melvis. The plants are amazing. There are so many different kinds of trees, palms, and epiphytes. There are strangler figs all over the place, too. These start as vines in the canopy of a tree and send out root tips seeking the ground. Eventually, the fig has sent down so many roots that it creates its own trunk and the tree it had been growing on dies leaving a fig tree in its place.
In the afternoon, we went out with some measuring tapes and worked together to assess the size and species of trees in a few plots near the grounds. In the middle of our sampling we were interrupted by a troop of spider monkeys. They were so mad that we were in their jungle! They started screaming and shaking branches and throwing sticks at us – it was amazing! We watched them (while dodging projectiles) for 15 minutes until they decided that we were not moving and that they should just move along.
For the next couple of days, we did similar work interspersed with visits to the Menonite communities who are responsible for most of the agriculture in Belize, Mayan ruins, and land set aside for carbon sequestration credits. All the while we would meet to discuss what kind of lessons we could create out of our experiences. We decided to focus on the value of trees as a carbon storage pool. On our second-to-last day, we split up into groups to finish up work on the lesson plan that we have been developing about carbon sequestration. It’s essentially a full week long unit that has three lessons, they will go out and measure all the trees in a plot, then calculate carbon storage and use it to scale up to a larger region and finally have a debate between conservationists and developers about the value of forests from a carbon sequestration perspective.
On our way from La Milpa to Calabash Caye, we stopped at the Belize zoo and I got to see a black jaguar up close. It was so huge and beautiful and humbling. Animals at the Belize zoo are all native, wild animals who have been injured and are rehabilitated in a safe place where they can also provide education to Belizians about the incredible biodiversity in their country.
Shortly after the huge change of scene that accompanied our arrival at Calabash Caye, we began to collect specimens from our snorkeling outings. One morning, I found a new addition that looked just like a vivid purple and blue bubble-wrap bubble with long long strings of purple hanging from it – a Portuguese Man of War. Chris, our guide, had found it washed up on the beach. They float on the surface and are at the mercy of the wind, and there has been a lot of it. They are also very poisonous and have nematocysts, or stinging cells, all over those long purple strings.
For our first activity, we started off with a quick lecture on coral: their life cycle, adaptations, and ecology. This was my first hint that I knew nothing about coral as all the information was new to me. Next we studied up on some species of coral, invertebrates, and fish that we would be likely to see. Then we suited up with our snorkel gear, and headed out to the reef. The reef is about a mile off shore in front of the research station where we are staying. We all got in the water and snorkeled around and it was like nothing I had ever seen. There were all kind of coral: lettuce coral, staghorns, star coral, fire coral, and all upper shallow! I also saw huge parrot fish, yellow snappers, and a whole bunch of other amazingly bright fish that I couldn’t identify. We laid out a transect and did some basic sampling of fish species and urchins. It was a lot of work to stay on the transect with the current. I was exhausted by the time we were done.
We came back for a big lunch and then spent some time identifying some of the specimens we had collected. Then we geared back up and went out to snorkel again, this time in the mangroves (where we had seen a salt water crocodile the day before!). We snorkeled around the mangrove roots which are covered in sponges of all sorts of crazy colors and shapes. It was really cool to check them out and the water was calm so we just inflated our vests and floated around so as not to disturb the sediments and the upsidedown jellyfish who were hanging out all over the bottom.
After our hands-on activities, we did some serious brainstorming about how to translate our experiences, which were very place-based to the classroom. We came up with a simulated coral reef transect sampling activity that I think does a good job capturing the data collection experience we had, and also teaches our students about the dazzling biodiversity of these ecosystems.
The lessons we created are available under “Lesson Plans.”