From the Classroom to the Chinampas and Back, National Grid Foundation Teach Earth Fellows Share Their Stories

By Ashley Junger, Earthwatch Science Writer


Funded by the National Grid Foundation, three Boston Public School teachers participated on the Earthwatch expedition Conserving Wetlands and Traditional Agriculture in Mexico. In this blog post, each of the teachers shares their experiences in the field and how they’ll bring their new knowledge back to their classrooms.

Within the ancient wetlands of Xochimilco, Mexico, reside a number of unique creatures. From the native Mexican axolotl salamanders to the colorful migratory birds to the three Boston Public School teachers. While these teachers aren’t a permanent presence in the wetlands, their time there has helped to create a better home for the creatures that inhabit this landscape.

Thanks to support from the National Grid Foundation, these three teachers were able to travel to this unique ecosystem and work alongside scientists and other teachers to understand how land use, agricultural techniques, and seasonality affect the conditions of this extraordinary environment on the Earthwatch expedition Conserving Wetlands and Traditional Agriculture in Mexico.

Throughout these wetlands are areas of dry land, known as “chinampas,” which are used for traditional agriculture. The survival and health of this landscape are tied heavily to the practices used on the chinampas. As traditional agriculture has evolved from small scale farming to environmentally-intensive practices, the wetlands have felt the effects.

Over the week, the teachers hopped into canoes and picked up gardening tools to help gather critical data on the presence of endemic species and water and soil quality around the chinampas. These data will be used to increase local awareness of the benefits of traditional agriculture and subsequently, improve ecosystem health.

During this scientific expedition, the teachers not only helped to preserve a vulnerable ecosystem, but they also gained the knowledge and confidence necessary to teach immersive science in their own classrooms. They collaborated on lesson plans and will bring this experience back to hundreds of students. Below, each of the National Grid Teach Earth Fellows shares their experiences in the field and how they’ll bring their new knowledge back to their classrooms.


Sonya conducting fieldwork
Sonya conducting fieldwork.


Sonya James
5th Grade Math & Science Teacher
Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School

I applied for the Teach Earth fellowship because it was a chance for me to explore a different country and culture while doing science. Most trips that I’ve taken to other countries have been for fun, but I knew this trip was going to be different. I was going to be focusing on an environmental issue in Xochimilco, Mexico, working with farmers and scientists from the area, and conducting research/experiments whose results would be used to inform the public and other decision-makers about the area of Xochimilco; this was a very exciting prospect for me.

The most interesting part of my expedition was getting in the field and getting my hands dirty. This was something I imagined my students would most enjoy. I made mistakes sometimes or had to try something over again, but it gave me confidence in doing the same work in my classroom and knowing that it is okay for things to not go perfectly all the time. One of my most interesting experiences was picking out the different insects from the water on the surface and bottom of the canals. I was amazed at how many different types of creatures there were and it was a bit calming to sit and pick them all out, categorize them, and know that the result was an indicator of the quality of the water and would be used as data for research.

I plan to share my experience in Xochimilco with my students during our first weeks of school. I work in an urban, predominantly black school, where some students don’t really get to explore outside of their neighborhoods. I want to share a different landscape and culture with them. I also want them to see that as a teacher I still continue to learn and challenge myself.

I want them to see that someone like them has a place in science, and so they do too.

Through doing this work, I realize now that I have tremendous power as an individual to enact change in my community and that can take shape in different forms. I want to teach my students about invasive species through what I learned about carp and tilapia’s effect on the native axolotl. I want to share the idea of sustainability, specifically in relation to farming and food.

Working with a group of women who were also teachers was so special. My experience in Mexico City will be something I carry with me for the rest of my life.

Rebekah Shyloski
K-12 Specialist Teacher
Sarah Greenwood Dual Language School

A former Teach Earth fellow and teacher at my school told me about the Teach Earth Fellowship and I decided to apply because I knew it would give me real-life experiences and content to make better decisions as we approach a new school year. As a specialist teacher at my school, I am able to extend these experiences and valuable knowledge not only to the 400 students I see on a weekly basis, but also their parents, all the homeroom teachers, the entire school staff, and administration.

The most interesting and transformative part of the expedition was being out in the field and being part of the science documenting process — one where the smallest details, down to the phytoplankton and zooplankton, can often be the most informative and profound. All of this information, with centuries of practice and research, can give us better insight into how to be economically and environmentally smart in our current era as we come to terms with the harm we (humans) have done to this world.
We are part of the beautiful flora and fauna systems of planet Earth, not above it.

A key takeaway from this experience is increased awareness and a strong sense of urgency to change learned and normalized habits, such as carelessly using and throwing away one-time use items, which plague our Earth with pollution. This makes me question the worth of getting something “to go” when it requires more single-use boxes that are so readily disposed of. We need to radically shift the way we live in order to conserve our limited resources and to keep our flora and fauna alive and diverse.

From this, I will create a highly structured system in my classroom that is devoted to three purposes:

1) To give the students more jobs and accountability
2) To divert as many useful objects and materials from going to landfills
3) To have a self-sustaining amount of tools and materials for my Makerpace classroom

My classroom is visited by every homeroom and the school staff, so it has a significant role in the school community as a space where they can practice resourcefulness, organization, innovation, and ownership.

Rebekah working in the field.
Rebekah working in the field.


Crystal working in the field.
Crystal working in the field.


Crystal Alcala
2nd Grade Spanish and Ethnic Studies Teacher
Sarah Greenwood Dual Language School

“Go to Mexico,” they said. “It will be fun,” they said. YES! Traveling to Mexico City as an Earthwatch fellow was the highlight of my year. As my first year of teaching was coming to an end, my mentor teacher recommended looking into Earthwatch after she herself had just completed an expedition in Mexico. Given that I am the daughter of Mexican immigrants and forever longing to continue learning about Mexican history, I jumped at the opportunity to apply to the Teach Earth Fellowship.

I was most eager to immerse myself in Mexican culture and was also curious to observe what the locals did to support conservation efforts. Part of the work I do with second graders is learning about children who live in the rainforest and how they help conserve the space. Now, I would be able to share the personal story of working alongside Mexicans doing the same for their community.

In working with the farmers and biologists, I experienced a simple exchange that reminded me of the importance of having a creative and positive mindset to help the planet. Francisco was one of the farmers who worked for REDES, the organization associated with UNAM, and was coincidentally from Michoacán, my father’s native state. I shared with Francisco about potentially starting a garden in my school and the concerns I had. Francisco immediately began to ramble off simple sustainable ideas to collect water, plant, and care for fresh herbs like Cilantro. It all seemed very simple to him and complicated but genius to me. His response was a breath of fresh air from the negativity that can at times cloud the possibility of an idea.

I truly respected the way the research biologists went into farming communities and collaborated with farmers, like Francisco, versus pressuring them to adopt new ways. Biologists work side by side with farmers, a reciprocal relationship of learning and teaching, to conserve the wetlands using traditional ways of farming introduced by previous indigenous Aztecs. The power in organizing I observed in Mexico is what I am bringing back to my school community, both with students and adults. I am going to look past doubts I had in bringing a garden to our school community. I am organizing with teachers, families, and a local community garden to bring life to my school’s unused garden boxes.

A wealth of knowledge and resources can be created when people come together.


A special thank you to the National Grid Foundation for funding these teachers’ fellowships!

Are you a high school teacher or do you know one who is searching for an opportunity to participate in a hands-on field-science experience? Learn more about the Teach Earth program!