Sunday, December 16, 2007

Learning Science among the Mangroves

Marga is a friend, who is now working for the USA Peace Corps. She recently told me a story of a day in her life. I wanted to share it so I asked and received permission from her to tell it to you.

A Day in the Life

I have been trying to do some environmental education at an elementary school with a great sixth grade teacher. We are trying to avoid just blowing in with fancy new information and connect it to the regular science/health curriculum. We are looking at the partner ecosystems (coral, sea grass & mangrove) that are important for fisheries sustenance. However, there is less than 100,000 hectares of mangrove left in the entire Philippines, even though there are many acres now being restored in planting projects. There is still a lot of belief they are just a muddy wasteland. Still many of the kids had never seen a typical mangrove with prop roots, pneumataphore, etc. so I agreed to do a field trip, but it turned out you couldn't really walk there from here soooo.....

Over the years I have done an uncountable number of school field trips. Well today I took 86 kids on a field trip to see mangroves in a town two barangays away. There are no school buses in the Philippines so I borrowed the farm truck from the municipio.

Flat Tire?

I came out fifteen minutes early to make sure we were set and mentioned that the front right looked a bit low. Flat? Ronnie the driver asked. Well a bit, yes. So we go to the gas station. Actually, I think it is quite windy but why do I care? Ahhh air machine is broke. I care. So we return to municipio and proceed to make quick tire change---quick means engine is running (standard transmission, so truck is in neutral) wheels are not choked, a guy is lying under truck in front of wheel banging the jack up. I can not watch and go over to the office, put my head down on the desk.

Actually when I return there is a small round stone fore & aft of one wheel & already he is lying there banging the jack down. Then they finish tightening the lugs, in order-not opposites as I was taught — with a huge lug wrench with a 5 foot extension handle. Fini!


The hakot, a farm word I don’t know, is like a very shallow dump truck with a barely waist high rail around. We have a rope across the middle for sort of like holding onto those old swinging straps on the MTA. There are also 2 narrow planks across so a few could sit on who can’t reach the rope.

So I load half — forty plus kids in the back — feet on the FLOOR! Don’t stand on the side! Don’t sit on the rail! Everyone PLEASE hold onto — well something! The children's teacher stays with the others and we take off down the highway with everyone standing in the back of the truck, hootin’ and waving to all people and vehicles as we go. We have a prayer here before everything and for the first time I wished we had had one before this truck started rolling. From the 11 year old point of view, yes, this is a ball. From the only adult with forty kids whose names I don’t even know……AGGGHHHH!!!

I try to warn them when we are about to brake for the turn but we go shrieking and staggering around the corner onto the dirt road where the branches beat us from above and the sides — please don’t let there be a low wire!!!

I am still dangling from the tailgate groping for a foot hold & the class has already shot onto the bridge and is hanging over the rail. Okay, everyone come to the middle. This is important, I announce. “Do not climb on the rail. NO one is allowed to fall in the river 'till your teacher gets here — is that clear?” “Yes, Ms. Marga.” We return to the rail and I point out the gamay isday — are they the juvenile fish from our lesson? Yes, I am in heaven!

Along the Muddy Banks

We trekked along the muddy bank of the Ajong River, brandishing my field guide pointing out pneumatiphores, prop roots, seed pods germinating on branches, detrius feeders at Nipa trunks, crab holes in the mud etc. My god you might almost believe I had actually seen a mangrove before 4 months ago! I need Pam Polloni! She always did the important biology stuff on field trips!!

It is very interesting to see that the kids are well trained to recognize key vocabulary and memorize it. I say, “These special root adaptations are called pneumatiphore.” “PNEUMATIPHORES!” echoes back at me from eighty enthusiastic young voices. The sound wave nearly knocked me backwards into the river! Unfortunately, it is pretty clear they are memorizing vocabulary not making a critical connection to structure and function or critical thinking paths — what happens if these are buried by silt? What process? How? Why? I don’t hear those questions………

Coming back I had a better concept of how perfectly safe this actually was so we just loaded all eighty-six in for one trip!

Charlie and friends behind the cab climb onto the rail, sticking way up and leaning into the wind like the scene in Titanic. Charlie down! ……… Everyone lived. I am home now and already on my second beer.

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