Stories from our international boarding schools

Experiential learning in paradise

Over Spring Break, IB Biology teacher Stephen Fleming took a group of students to Belize where they conducted experiments while enjoying the beauty of the Belize Barrier Reef off the country’s coast.

“Shark! Off the right bow!” Dr. Ken shouted.

It seemed a bit odd to hear the level of excitement in his voice. Ken Mattes is a marine scientist and has been taking students out to experience the amazing biodiversity and beauty of Belize’s Mesoamerican reef for twenty-three years. I am sure he has seen his fair share of sharks in these waters. Not to mention, just two days earlier, we were all swimming with a dozen six-foot nurse sharks. All the EF students, his wife Maureen and trusted guide Siete clambered to the edge of Goliath (our aptly named 45ft beast of a catamaran…our research vessel).

I was still a bit puzzled by Dr. Ken’s voice. I turned back from my seat at the front of the boat to see him at the helm with his eyes wide, peeking from under his tattered safari hat, and jerking his head to the right, signaling me to join the rest. As I rose and looked into the clear sky-blue Caribbean water, what looked like a large dark gray torpedo began to surface right alongside Goliath.

Siete hollered, “Bull shark, Dr. Ken! Bull shark. Nine feet!” It was massive and nine feet seemed like a conservative estimate. “The biggest I’ve ever seen,“ continued Siete.

The shark leisurely swam near the surface, turning on its side as if it was posing for a photo. Before the students could reach for their phones and snap a memory, the shark disappeared into deeper, darker water, leaving us with only our stories as evidence of this encounter. As Goliath silently cruised towards the mangrove islands just off Caye Caulker, the size of the bull shark grew as the story was retold.

However, the mangrove islands off Caye Caulker were our destination, the real reason we were on the water that day. This was the day when it became clear to the students that our adventure to Belize was not simply a school field trip, but an adventure in science, a chance for applying what we learn in the classroom to real world experiences.

The night before, like every night, Dr. Ken gathered all of us in the common area. This room, bordered by shelves overflowing with books and preserved animal specimens, acted as the dining area, the library and the only place at the Tropical Research Education Center (TREC) where there was a Wi-Fi signal to Skype home about our daily adventures. It also acted as our briefing room to prepare us for the next day’s adventure.

Dr. Ken told us of a mysterious disease that was beginning to decimate Belize’s fragile mangrove communities. He explained that a similar crisis was occurring in mangrove ecosystems on the other side of the globe, in Indonesia and the Philippines. The culprit in Asia has been identified as a wood-boring isopod. An arthropod the size of a grain of rice and similar in appearance to a louse, that works its way into the mangrove’s soft tissue and compromises the tree’s strength and robs it of nutrients. His fear was that the same species of isopod has found its way to Belize and successfully established itself in the community as an invasive species.

In an almost hopeless voice a student asked, “What can we do?”

Dr. Ken defiantly answered, “Science!” And pulling a small hacksaw from a cabinet, strained under the weight of the immense collection of fish identification books, continued, “We are going to cut some of the dying mangrove roots and bring them back to TREC. Are you ready to be scientists?”

Aboard Goliath early next morning and looking out southwest over the water, there was no sign of land across the vast back-reef lagoon that separates the barrier reef form the mainland. A pair of dolphins visited us to play in the boat’s wake when Siete pointed to four small bumps on the horizon. He yelled from the front of the boat, “There are our islands.”

Islands? It was more like four small gardens, defying logic, growing in the middle of the sea. As we neared, we could see cormorants drying their wings in the mangrove branches, bragging about the morning’s catch as they grunted at each other like oinking piglets.

We anchored about three hundred feet from the mangroves and Dr. Ken prepared us for the snorkel. He cautioned us on the flour-like fineness of the sediment around the mangroves, which would require extra finesse while snorkeling around the islands. As he always did, he told strange tales about the unusual fish and fish behaviors we might encounter. Fish like the bottom-walking batfish that appears to be wearing fire-orange lipstick to complement its fiery colored belly.

Snorkeling towards the mangroves we became disappointed, wondering how we would see anything due to the cloudiness of the water up ahead, drastically hampering visibility. But as we neared the maze of roots on which the mangroves stood, we noticed that the clouds ahead were fish, thousands, maybe millions, of miniature fish. We soon understood that the mangroves were a nursery for the same fish we saw out on the reef. The biodiversity and sheer numbers were unimaginable.

No doubt, the barrier reef is unforgettable, but the mangroves were special, mysterious and maybe a bit spooky. Swimming between the roots was like swimming between the fingers of giant mythical creatures trying to grab us. The leaves above casted shadows, challenging our perception and our courage. Once we thought we had a handle of the mangroves, we soon found ourselves in the middle of a fish highway. Millions of tiny fish, circling the mangroves at breakneck speed, avoiding a collision with us at the last second.

“We are also here to collect data,” reminded Dr. Ken.

Right, I almost forgot. We collected samples of healthy and weakened mangrove roots, and then swam back to Goliath. I remember not wanting to leave, thinking to myself that there were still some parts I didn’t explore, some fish I haven’t seen.

During the two-hour trip back to TREC, the students were anxious to begin dissecting the mangrove specimens, perhaps discover something new and solve the mystery . Soon the chatter began to die down, as one by one we dozed off, victims of the gentle rocking of the boat, the soothing breeze and the warmth of the setting Belizean sun.

You might ask, “What did you find? Did you find any isopods? Is it true, an invasive species?” Back at TREC that evening the students made several discoveries. By asking questions and searching for the answers, they had become scientists.

The isopod specimens we collected were difficult to identify using traditional identification methods. This was due to the similarity in external features between the endemic species and the non-native Asian species. Dr. Ken Mattes sent the specimens to a lab for DNA analysis. Results are pending. In addition, there is a concern that rising temperatures of the seas have made the mangroves susceptible to endemic species of isopods by killing symbiotic sponges and zooanthids that grow on the mangrove roots and feed on isopods.

Stephen Fleming has been teaching IB Biology at EF Academy New York for seven years and has been taking students to TREC for two years. His hope is that by exposing students to meaningful learning and to the excitement of scientific discovery our children can lead us and become the next generation of environmental stewards.

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