Educators on Expedition: Journey to the Okavango

The following post was written by 2013 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Megan Swanson. Learn more about Megan and follow her blog here

This summer, I had the opportunity to visit Botswana with my friend and colleague, Dr. Deborah Bennett.  Through a grant from Fund for Teachers, we came to investigate conservation in the face of increasing human-wildlife conflict.  

Our goal is to incorporate this knowledge into lessons that will empower our students to address the environmental challenges facing our population. We found the very inspiration we were looking for in the Okavango Delta, where the flood plains of the Okavango River meet the dry sands of the Kalahari Desert.

Aerial view of the Okavango Delta, Botswana, at sunset. Photograph by Megan Swanson.

One of the world’s largest inland river deltas, the Okavango Delta is an isolated habitat that we cannot afford to lose. Here is a quick look at how one gets around this unique place:

But, how do we relay this incredible environment and its message to our students? We wanted to bring back stories that couldn’t be found in textbooks, illustrating the complex interactions between humans and wildlife.  One example came from a remote Kalahari village, where elephants have discovered that if they drop wood into the village water well, the water level rises enough for them to reach in for a drink.

Another story developed from a visit to Chobe National Park, which borders Namibian farmland.  Here we learned of the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and anthrax between wild Cape Buffalo and domesticated cattle.  Young men described how they use solar panels on the sides of their mud hut to get electricity to charge their cell phones and play music, yet live without refrigeration or electric lights.

One morning, we passed a car unloading a leopard they had hit and killed while driving late at night.  In Botswana, fences have been eliminated to promote more natural animal migration patterns, and seeing wildlife on the road is not uncommon.

We took pictures, wrote in journals, and exchanged contact information with the people we met along the way, collecting artifacts to bring back to our classrooms.

These stories painted a picture of the challenges resulting from increased human-wildlife interaction for my Environmental Biology class. Back at my school, I brought my findings to life through a group activity. Each group acted as one of six African villages, and everyone was dependent on farming for food and income.1 The local river is a vital source of water for their livelihood, but also attracts migrating herds of elephant and buffalo, which damage their crops and bring disease to their cattle. The government of Botswana has recently partnered with neighboring countries to create a conservation area, and would like to protect the wildlife around the river by relocating the villages.  

Using pictures, videos, and maps from my trip, students gained a sense of what life would be like in their village, and an appreciation for the area they were fighting to protect.

Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Photograph by Megan Swanson.

They began asking questions as they struggle with the difficult decision: Who would pay for their relocation?  How would they get money to build their new homes?  How long would it take before roads and other infrastructure were put into place?  Would they be given priority when looking for a job in the new conservation area?  If they could no longer farm, how would they feed their family?  After a lively discussion of the costs and benefits associated with relocating their village, the students realized this challenge doesn’t have one right answer, but requires compromise.  

Maintaining a balanced and healthy ecosystem involves negotiation, and solutions are provisional, requiring continual evaluation to meet changing needs.

Recently, students investigated habitat fragmentation by mapping the locations of species found in a habitat before and after the development of a shopping mall.  After calculating the area lost to each of the species, they were able to conclude that the land lost to wildlife is greater than the physical presence of the mall itself.

My physiology classes will be examining the struggle against infectious disease through a jigsaw activity comparing management of HIV in Southern Africa, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea.  Each of these places has taken a unique approach to stopping the spread of the virus, ranging from the promotion of circumcision to providing drug users with clean needles.

I want my students to realize that they can use science and technology to be agents of change, both within their local and global communities.  While science is often tied to logical thinking, I hope my students will learn to appreciate the importance of creativity in science, particularly when it comes to addressing complex problems.  While there is rarely a perfect solution to the environmental challenges facing our population, it is important that they take part in the discussion.

Megan Swanson in Nata, Botswana. Photograph courtesy of Deborah Bennett.

1 – This activity was a modified version of a case study focused on conservation challenges in Namibia.

Pricope, Narcisa G., Andrea E. Gaughan, and Susan C. Caplow. “Community-Based Management and Conservation in Africa Trade-Offs and Synergies in Land-Use Decisions in Local Villages.”National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York.


2 thoughts on “Educators on Expedition: Journey to the Okavango

  1. So thrilled to see Megan, a fabulous teacher leader, continue her world travels. Thanks for sharing your life changing experiences with other educators and students!

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