As soon as the plane carrying local teachers Martine Robinson and Lory Coursey to Jackson Hole, Wyo., set down, the pair knew they weren't in New Jersey anymore.
Robinson and Coursey were two of 11 teachers selected to participate in a July research trip in and around Grand Teton National Park. The trip was one of several in the U.S. and abroad as part of the Earthwatch Institute's Fellowship Program, which seeks to foster scientific education and promote sustainability among teachers and students.
Robinson said the rural, forested landscape was in stark contrast to the suburban sprawl she's accustomed to in South Jersey.
"We saw two bald eagles side by side; you don't see things like that around here," said Robinson, who lives in Mays Landing and teaches third grade at New York Avenue School in Atlantic City. "As soon as we got off the plane, and actually I'm talking half a mile from the airport, I'm seeing buffalo everywhere."
The Earthwatch Institute began in 1971 with the goal of building an international network of scientists, educators and students to lay the foundation for a sustainable environment, and has sent nearly 100,000 volunteers on expeditions during its four decade history.
Although Earthwatch Expeditions are open to anyone, the Fellowship Program is geared specifically for teachers and students, and is highly selective. Allison Roach, senior program manager at Earthwatch, said reaching these groups is vital to building a sustainable future.
"Our goal is to really engage people and bring about awareness for the environmental issues facing our planet, and there's no better way to do this than with a teacher who is reaching hundreds of students in their career and with students who are just starting to form their ideas of the world around them," Roach said.
During their trip, Robinson and Coursey conducted surveys of songbird populations in sites around Jackson Hole, navigating the field with GPS units and recording data for future study by scientists.
Coursey said the trip opened her eyes to the importance of environmental stewardship and her role as an educator in instilling that obligation in her students.
"It increased my understanding of the importance of sustainability," said Coursey, a fifth-grade teacher at New York Avenue School and an Egg Harbor Township resident. "The fact that what I do will make a difference, and I see the importance of the study."
This was Coursey's first Earthwatch Expedition, and the second for Robinson, who studied the impact of forest fragmentation in the Atlantic Coast rainforest in Brazil with the group in 1993.
One of the stipulations of acceptance into the program is that teachers pledge to implement what they learned into the curriculum and brief the Earthwatch Institute on their plans and what they learned. Robinson said she is looking to enroll the school in Nike's Reuse-a-Shoe campaign, and Coursey will establish an ecology club at the school called Environmental Club Helping Organize Efforts in Sustainability, or ECHOES.
Coursey said she is excited for the opportunity to bring the important lessons she learned during her trip to her students.
"I'd like to share that information," Coursey said. "Every little bit counts. I felt like I really did my part and by coming back to my community and sharing what I've learned with my students, I'm able to fulfill that obligation."
For more information on the Earthwatch Institute or its Fellowship programs, visit earthwatch.org.
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