I had the opportunity to visit a private, Christian K-12 school in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico on the Baja Peninsula where a close friend of mine currently teaches science. As a science educator/biologist, I was really interested in understanding both the school system in this part of Mexico and also the students’ thoughts and experiences regarding conservation and development, as the region is rich in biodiversity and has experienced a great deal of controversy and political tension with regards to whether or not to develop large portions of its pristine coastline.
Beach on the Sea of Cortez in Los Barriles, Baja California Sur.
Upon arriving in Mexico, I learned that the teachers at the school I visited are recruited from both the US and Mexico, and they teach their lessons primarily in English so that the kids can gain English speaking/writing skills. All of the students are Mexican citizens and most have grown up in Baja. The school is private, but is run by a charitable organization and offers many scholarships to students in the area with low socio-economic status. The socio-economic status of the children ranges widely from some kids having parents who work in the high-end resorts or the land bureau offices to those who live in poverty with their families in the desert arroyos (seasonally filled washes or dry desert stream beds). Their teacher told me that she often participates in feeding and clothing her own students. She is a scientist with no previous formal teaching experience, and upon her arrival to the school last year she was given 5-7 full periods of classes per day. Her classes range all the way from elementary to high school and she teaches both science and English. She spoke to me about the difficulties of being a new teacher and having many students not only at different grade levels, but also with a broad range of English speaking abilities. Some kids are close to fluent, while others need students to translate for them during class, which creates some classroom management issues as there are always students talking to one another in side conversations in Spanish. Prior to her coming to the school, none of the kids had science classes, even at the high school level, because of the inability of the school to recruit teachers knowledgeable enough about the content. When she leaves soon to return to the US, there will again be no science classes for any of the 200 students in the school.
While visiting the school, I was able to teach four periods of science classes during which I did a Communicating Ocean Science to Informal Audiences (COSIA) activity with the kids to help teach them that although most of our planet is covered by water, only a small proportion supports a large concentration of life because of nutrient availability in the ocean. The slides were in Spanish, but I conducted the lesson in English, stopping every so often to allow kids to translate for one another and to check for comprehension. This was necessary as neither I nor the teacher were sufficiently fluent in Spanish to be able to help translate ourselves. Some students were more vocal than others which seemed to correlate with their comfort with the English language, but in general they were engaged in the activities and discussions and offered many intelligent suggestions.
I was able to tie the activity we did regarding ocean productivity directly to their home in Baja as the peninsula supports a great amount of biodiversity due to its’ nutrient rich waters, and it still has a lot of pristine coastline despite much development by corporations and large resorts. I incorporated a discussion into the activity by showing a public broadcast video about a failed development plan in Baja that would replace one of the last untouched wetlands in North America with a resort and a golf course. The video also talked about the loss of many potential jobs because of the development failure. I asked the students to reflect on what they had just learned, and we had a class discussion on whether or not Baja’s coastline should be conserved or developed. We also discussed sustainable development and talked a little bit about how development could impact some of Baja’s natural resources and coastal ecosystems and how it could be good in terms of economic growth. The resulting discussion surprised me in that there was an almost unanimous, hands-down response that Baja should be conserved. Their teacher had previously told me that many of them aspire to work at the resorts in the area, so I was somewhat taken aback by their strong anti-development opinions in regards to conserving the natural beauty of their home. One student simply wrote on her paper “Save Baja” and held it up. Another student said that God created the beauty of Baja and that they should protect God’s creatures. Several of the students brought up that there should be a balance between conservation and development that will keep Baja wild, but also bring much needed jobs to the area. In regards to tourism’s effects on the environment many of the students said that “ignorant” Mexican locals hurt the environment with trash and pollution much more than the tourists in the area. They had a strong desire to have clean and beautiful beaches where they could see whales and dolphins, and in our more informal discussions, many of them described spending much of their free time at the beach going to bonfires, surfing, swimming, etc. It occurred to me that their conservationist viewpoints may have stemmed somewhat from their valuing of the pristine coastline where they choose to spend their free time socializing. During my friend’s time at the school she had also brought in local environmentalist guest speakers to talk about sustainability and had taken her class whale watching, which may have also affected on their views towards development. Many of the students had a lot of interest in science and in the politics of their country, although most did not feel empowered to change the governmental actions and policies regarding development and broader issues they did not agree with because of corruption at many levels.
A few of the high school students that participated in the ocean science outreach activity.
Although there are surely challenges unique to this school in Mexico, the school and its’ students were not so different from many schools in the United States. It struck me that this under-funded school with kids from disparate socio-economic classes and wide-ranging English speaking abilities is much like many schools in the US with similar demographics. Teaching students with so many differences in language abilities gave me a new appreciation for our teachers with high numbers of ESL students in their classes, as I felt that repetition was necessary for simple comprehension for some while the constant stopping and repeating was not challenging enough for some of the more fluent students. It was also upsetting to think that some of them might not understand the content simply because of the language barrier and my inability to translate it for them.
The kids at this school were interested in science and how it affected their social and economic well-being, and had clearly benefitted from having a science teacher come to spend a year with them. I am left feeling very thankful for the experience to meet a wonderful group of kids, but also very sad at the idea that starting next week science will not be taught in their school. It is uncertain whether or not they will be able to recruit another science teacher in the future.