Beth Guzzetta, this week’s Educator of the Week, organizes international programs that emphasize field research as well as respect for other cultures and environments. Beth is a middle school math and science teacher and an international research educator at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, New York.
You seem to have a pretty unique role at your school. Can you tell me about it?
I’m a classroom teacher, but I’m also an international research educator. That means I organize educational trips abroad—most recently to Madagascar. I think it’s incredibly powerful to give students field research experience while they’re abroad, but the programs are about more than that. I hope to empower globally minded citizens who will change the world someday.
Madagascar was a farther journey than you’d taken with students before. How did the program grow into what it is today?
Well, it started because I had a great experience studying abroad in Wales when I was in college. That made me want to get more people into other countries. So when I graduated, I organized a trip to England and Wales that centered around soccer and cultural immersion.
Then, once I had kids of my own, I wanted them and other local children to experience environmental science outside their home state. So I started to bring kids down to the Florida Keys for marine biology “sea camp,” and I saw them develop an appreciation for new environments and a hunger for new experiences.
I started wondering how I could make this more global. How could I combine the scientific research aspect with a cultural twist? It was during this time that I met Dr. Patricia Wright at a National Science Teachers Association conference. She was showing her IMAX movie, Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, and I pitched her the idea of bringing middle- and high-school students to her facility in Madagascar.
Initially, Dr. Wright was shocked that I wanted students so young to go to Madagascar. She usually works with college-aged students but she was supportive nonetheless. I started planning with my school’s administration and offered the idea to the school community, which was very receptive.
What did the students do in Madagascar?
We focused our time on science and cultural immersion for the 18-day trip. The students set out to learn the basics of the Malagasy language while researching the unique flora, fauna, and culture of Madagascar. We also worked with Malagasy children and adults at various schools, contributed to a reforestation project, completed a biodiversity study, and participated in cultural visits.
What was it like for the students to come back home to the United States? Did you have any activities planned for their return?
Once we returned, the students updated blogs with their photos and reflections. For example, Roxy wrote a post for each day and included multiple photos from our excursions. And Matt’s blog has some impressive photographs showcasing the biodiversity of Madagascar.
In addition, the students put together a presentation for our community and helped out at the local zoo. At the time, the zoo was renovating the Madagascar exhibit, and the students helped make the environment more comfortable based on their experience in the actual country.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
For me, it was rewarding to see the transformation in my students. I watched them gain a more nuanced understanding of environmental science and the interconnected systems of our planet.
The students expected that the issues they wanted to explore—like reforestation and species extinction—would be easier to address. But the problems weren’t as simple as they had originally thought. For example, it’s easy to say, “don’t cut down trees…deforestation is bad,” but then you learn that people use trees as fuel for cooking. In some cases, if they don’t cut down that tree, they won’t be able to eat. Through this illustration and others, students began to see the bigger picture, understand how life is connected, and gain an appreciation of the privileges they have at home.
How would you advise teachers in schools with limited resources to integrate some of the approaches you’ve used in the field?
There are always teachers and communities in other countries that want to work and connect with you. I’ve been Skyping with teachers in the Philippines and Madagascar so the kids can connect with others in different environments—and that’s free. Use what you have in front of you to connect, and continue to reach out.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.