Lessons from the Galapagos
How the Toyota International Teacher Program
is helping to save the planet, one teacher at a time
Submitted by the Philanthropy and Community Affairs Department
of  Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Inc.



It’s not every day you find a teenage student who immediately recognizes the name of Charles Darwin. Less often will these students know how the Galapagos Islands, located just off the coast of Ecuador, have developed for the past 170 years since Darwin visited to study the rare species of plants and animals that still inhabit the islands.

Today the Galapagos Islands — and the name of Charles Darwin — have come to represent environmental awareness. A foundation under Darwin’s name dedicated to the conservation of the Galapagos ecosystem resides on the islands,1 making the region a perfect starting point for study and discussion of global issues, especially those pertaining to the environment.

Twenty U.S. teachers spent 10 days last fall studying the rich environmental heritage of the Galapagos Islands as part of a professional development study tour sponsored by the Toyota International Teacher Program. Now they’re back in the classroom, sharing what they’ve learned with hundreds of students.

The experience of a lifetime

Toyota has been involved in the Galapagos since 2001, when, in response to the Jessica oil tanker spill, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) approached Toyota for assistance in rethinking transportation and energy use on the islands. Toyota’s partnership with WWF has grown over the past five years as the groups have worked together to develop numerous projects involving education and community outreach. One such project is the teacher program, now in its ninth year. The program’s overall goal is for teachers to gain a better knowledge of ecological responsibility and then take it back to their classrooms and communities to motivate and inspire others.

This year marks the first time the program has sent teachers to the Galapagos. While there, the teachers observed and explored environmental projects, talked with community leaders and participated in activities that encourage global awareness about environmental stewardship.

The teachers also spent time with Galapagueño instructors and students, visiting their classrooms and discussing different theories of conservation and natural protection.
Meet three of the teachers that participated in the Galapagos Islands study tour and learn how they are making a difference in their classrooms.

A biological jackpot

Linda Strauss, a biology teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey, got up close and personal with many of the endemic species of the islands. She swam with white-tip reef sharks, sea lions and turtles and even got to walk alongside giant Galapagueño tortoises.

“These animals have no fear of our species, but you don’t want to interfere with their habitats,” Strauss explained. “For a biology teacher, this was a wonderful opportunity to study evolution in the field.”

Upon returning home, however, Strauss realized a challenge in sharing her experiences. “[Americans] hear so much about the Galapagos, but conveying to them just how fragile that ecosystem is can be difficult,” Strauss said. “In reality, the Galapagos is a microcosm of the rest of our world.”

Because the ecosystem there is so small and delicate, actions taken in the Galapagos have a more immediate consequence. If those same actions were taken elsewhere in the world, similar consequences might be slower to develop.

Strauss has already given presentations around New Jersey about her trip and will present at an upcoming annual teachers’ convention. She is starting an evolution unit in her classes and plans to share her stories and hundreds of pictures from the Galapagos with her students to give them a more real-life take on the subject.

A personal connection

Because teacher program participants educate students on different subjects, not all of them were equally familiar with the Galapagos before the trip.

“I didn’t have a huge understanding of the islands before I went, besides the fact that they were beautiful,” said Erika Pereira, a Spanish literacy and ESL teacher at MacFarland Middle School in Washington, D.C. “I loved meeting the Galapagueño teachers and students and visiting their schools. Meeting them and making connections was the best part of the trip for me.”

Many tourists come to the islands to view or study the legendary animals, which leaves the human population of the islands feeling isolated and forgotten. Pereira wanted to change that as soon as she returned, by sharing pictures she took and telling her students about the kids and teachers she worked with. Most of her students are first-generation Americans from Latin America.

Pereira is integrating her experience in the Galapagos into her curriculum to teach English to her students. This year they will write a report on two animals indigenous to the Galapagos, researching their habitats and predators to give a complete description. Students will also explore their creative writing sides, composing fictional stories and myths involving Galapagueño creatures.

Empowering advocates for change

Sara Laimon, an environmental science teacher at Environmental Charter High School in California, went into the Galapagos program expecting to simply share her environmental teaching practices. However, after returning, she’s empowered to make people more aware, in both the U.S. and the Galapagos, to see that protecting the environment is a bigger issue than many think.

“The Galapagos has the same problems as the U.S. but exaggerated — actions have an immediate consequence there,” Laimon said. “Being there gives you a passion to make a change. Recycling is not the answer; it’s how our products are made. Toxic things are destroying our world.”

Laimon is also committed to honoring, respecting and learning from the people of the Galapagos. She is currently writing grants to secure funding to bring Galapagueños to the U.S. for further idea exchanges.

Besides developing grant applications and researching better ways to conserve, Laimon will start the next section of science curriculum by getting her students more involved with the Galapagos. They will trace the history of a plastic bottle and track it as it ends up in the Galapagos — and discuss the damage it can do to the ecosystem.

Looking ahead

These teachers, along with the 17 others who accompanied them on the inaugural study tour, agree this trip went beyond their greatest expectations. Whether they were familiar with the Galapagos and its ecological heritage or made life-changing discoveries, these teachers all went home with a renewed passion for their profession and a deep excitement to share what they learned with their students.

“This is a new opportunity for teachers to receive a global environmental perspective that they can take back to the classroom and their communities,” said Michael Rouse, corporate manager, philanthropy and community affairs at Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. “We are proud to provide teachers a chance to explore environmental sustainability as it relates to the balance of humans and nature.”
1The Darwin Foundation, www.darwinfoundation.org/about/main.html

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