Like many educators, Port Republic science teacher Jason Clarkson has devoted a chunk of his summer vacation to brush up on his subject. Unlike most, he traveled more than 2,000 miles to do so.
On July 28, Clarkson traveled to Arizona for an 11-day expedition to study the effect of climate change on caterpillars with prominent entomologists as part of the Earthwatch Institute's Fellowship Program.
Clarkson said the hands-on experience will be valuable for future lessons on climate change and biology.
"It gives me a whole new insight on things to teach the children," he said. "I feel like the kids learn a lot better when it's something that either they've been a part of or they know someone that's been a part of it."
The Earthwatch Institute was founded in 1971 with the aim of building an international network of scientists, educators and students who could lay the foundation for a sustainable environment, and has sent nearly 100,000 volunteers on expeditions over its four decade history.
While typical Earthwatch Expeditions are open to anyone, they require volunteers to cover their own costs - a significant expense - and contribute to the organization. The Fellowship Program, on the other hand, is offered exclusively to K-12 classroom teachers and requires participants to pay only travel costs.
On his trip, Clarkson and 10 other volunteers counted and captured caterpillars in the mountains around Tucson and transported them to a laboratory, where they will be raised to maturity. Once they become moths or butterflies, they will be examined for parasitoids, or organisms similar to parasites that ultimately kill their hosts and stop them from reproducing.
The area's caterpillars and parasitoids evolved in tandem with each other, with the parasitoids acting to keep caterpillar populations in check. Now the life cycles of the two organisms are out of sync -theoretically due to climate change - which threatens to upset ecological balance and cause a spike in caterpillar populations. Data collected by Clarkson and his fellow volunteers will be used to determine the extent of the disruption in the organisms' life cycles.
Clarkson said he very much enjoyed the trip, not only because it offered a real-life application of classroom lessons, but also a chance to meet other educators and experts who are enthusiastic about their work.
"I met a lot of teachers from all different areas, some of them were math teachers, some were English teachers," Clarkson said. "It was great working with some of these researchers who were the top guys in their field, people who were writing books on this stuff."
Clarkson was one of about 30 teachers selected nationwide to attend one of three 2013 fellowship expeditions. The other trips this year were a study similar to Clarkson's in Ecuador and a study on songbirds in Wyoming.
He returned from his trip late Aug. 7, and has raved about it nonstop to his girlfriend, Kristin Podsiadlik, ever since.
"He can't help it," she said "It's definitely exciting. It's awesome, and it's funny, the pictures I was looking at, it's not what I thought Arizona would look like at all."
Clarkson said he had a great time on the trip, and hopes to again get a chance to do some field research. A future Earthwatch fellowship is a possibility, he said, as is joining a research expedition to Peru a colleague of his is planning for next year.
Regardless of when and how he gets back into the field, Clarkson said, if it's anything like the recent trip, it will bring with it a renewed passion for education.
"Everyone left excited about what they were going to do coming back to school," Clarkson said. "It kind of reignited an excitement among all the teachers to come back (to the classroom.)"
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