Humans of Project Kindle: Finding Diversity in Nature and Education

By Zachary Zimmerman, Earthwatch Groups Expedition Advisor

Every year, I struggle to find new and unique ways to capture the indescribable microcosm of discovery, friendship, and real science that is Project Kindle, an annual fellowship designed to expose high school educators to field research and ultimately help them repeat the experience with their own students. How do I put into words what it’s like to host some of the country’s most qualified and innovative science teachers in some of the world’s most beautiful research locations? Most days I’m stuck at my desk, looking for new partner schools and drinking too much coffee, while they’re on the frontlines, stewarding the next generation of young environmental leaders and researchers toward career paths that could literally change the world. Then summer hits, and when they should be taking a much-deserved break, they dive right back in and join us for an intensive week of fieldwork and program workshops. Who am I to speak truth to what makes this program so magical when they’re making the magic happen?

This year, in an attempt to capture this magic, I had a new idea – a collaborative field journal that the fellows and I would write throughout the week during our time on the expedition Toucans, Parrots, and Other Wildlife in Costa Rica’s Forests, based on some admittedly hackneyed writing prompts (“What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen this week?” “What’s been most challenging?” Ad nauseam). When I presented my “vision,” it was no surprise that one fellow, Kathie Ang, flitted her hand up, offering a superior idea – a collection of quotes in the style of Brandon Stanton’s now-famous “Humans of New York,” featuring each of the fellows in their own voice. What you’ll read below is a curated selection of our conversations through the week, on everything from the importance of getting students outside, to the value of lifelong learning, to why collaboration is key to discovery. Enjoy!


Kathie Ang

Kathie Ang, AP Biology and Environmental Science

Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, Chicago, Illinois

“Students in Chicago are very street smart; they are very independent, they can take the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) by themselves at a pretty early age, and they’re trusted to get wherever they need to go. But then you put them in an outdoor environment, and they’re completely lost! I remember leading a student trip to Belize, and the students were so amazed by the sounds of crickets! They were like, ‘What is that noise?! They’re so loud!’ And I was like, ‘They exist in the city, but you have a lot of other noise.’ So it’s just these little things that really sparked my interest in getting students outside more because there’s so much wonder in the outdoors. Even today, when we were birding, it was cool to feel like a student again and see our progression throughout the day. A lot of times, we think of humans as outside of the animal kingdom when we’re very much within it. I want to get students to see that they’re part of nature, that they’re part of this world, and that the rules that dictate life also dictate our life.”

Krissy Coots – Living Systems and Animal Behavior

Sparrows Point High School, Sparrows Point, Maryland

“I really enjoy the fact that we are participating so much in the research. I’ve already been on other workshops where certain people will do the majority of the work and we just help out with mundane tasks. But I feel like the research we’re doing here and the data we’re collecting is the same as what the scientists are collecting, and it’s neat to feel like you’re part of something bigger. I didn’t expect to see such a variety of birds, which is really cool, and I didn’t expect to pick it up so quickly.

“It’s really important for students to realize that nature moves at its own pace and you can’t force interesting things to happen. Sometimes you go to a site and you don’t see a lot of activity, but that’s still data. It’s important for students to learn some patience with these studies, and that they’re not always going to have this exciting result at the end of each day. But when you look at a bigger picture, after all the data’s been collected, you can come to some interesting conclusions. I’m also just amazed at the biodiversity here. I knew it’d be a lot, but everywhere I look, there’s something I haven’t seen before. It’s really cool to experience the outdoors, which I’ve always loved, but in a totally different type of habitat than I’m used to.”

Krissy Coots
Amy Elliott

Amy Elliott – Biology, Lead Science Teacher

Wolcott School, Chicago, Illinois

“Throughout this expedition, I have built a better understanding of how teamwork in the field can not only lead to a better understanding of scientific content, but also to strong relationships that can open up doors to understanding people of different ages, cultures, and professions. I am so excited for my students to see young adults who are just out of college doing meaningful research that they are excited about. Or perhaps they will meet experienced researchers who have dedicated their lives to understanding something with a greater purpose and application. Maybe they will connect with locals who will share their lives with them and show them the beauty and productive side of diversity.

“I am leaving Costa Rica with new friends, knowledge, and hopes for my own future in scientific research. I am so excited to share the pictures and stories from the field with my students and excite them with the chance to do the same next year. I also discovered a newfound excitement in myself about being out in the field, collaborating with others who love biology, teaching, and learning, and being somewhere outside of my normal comfort zone. I have always loved to travel, but this trip re-energized my desire to connect research with trips abroad. I am sad for my time here to end, but I am so looking forward to my future Earthwatch expeditions.”

Bobbie Izell – AP Biology and Chemistry

Glendora High School, Glendora, California

“The thing I’ve found most rewarding about being a teacher is making a difference in students’ lives. One of the coolest things for me is when kids come back or write me an email and state how my class has helped them in their college experience. In my classroom, I’ve always tried to do as many hands-on activities as possible to show students what true science is, and as much as I think I’ve done a good job of that – doing labs and things like that, there aren’t as many opportunities to get out in the field and put what they’ve learned to practice. A school setting gives you good opportunities to work with microscopes and pipettes and test tubes, but to actually go into the field and collect ecological data, it takes a lot of planning, and these programs with Earthwatch facilitate that. If you can inspire somebody by showing them real science out in the field, doing the real work… you know, I think that’s one of the jobs of a teacher.”

Bobby Izell
Tchnavia Merrick

Tchnavia Merrick – IB Genetics and Environmental Systems and Societies

Brooklyn Prospect School, Brooklyn, New York

“One thing that’s important is that we encourage students to continue to learn, but learning for teachers should be continuous too. A trip like this exposes us to science and research so that we can, in turn, expose students to it as well. My students are inner-city students and don’t typically experience the outdoors unless they can go away to camp, and I have students who have never even been out of Brooklyn, so I want to take what I learn back, and hopefully take them outside of their comfort zones to see that there’s more to the world than in the classroom.

I learned so much from the facilitators and staff on the fellowship. You can’t replace this experience with a textbook. Forget the textbook – let’s meet the people!”

Meredith Salmon – Biology and Marine Science

Peddie School, Hightstown, New Jersey

“My parents always encouraged us to always be outside, no matter if it was summer or winter. So I was interested in learning about the natural world from an early age. I worked at some summer camps too and was the neighborhood babysitter, so I figured teaching science would be a good happy medium for my many interests. For students, some of them may learn about an avenue of science they’re now interested in pursuing; some of them may learn that science fieldwork is not their thing, and that’s a great thing to learn ahead of time…Depending on the student, it can be anything—a huge epiphany moment or a small discovery that can still be really meaningful, which is kind of cool, because you can see them grow in different ways.

“Of everything we’ve done this week so far, the thing I’ve most enjoyed is getting to work with a variety of different people, whether that’s the teachers – since we all come from different schools, different backgrounds, different experiences – but also working with the field staff. To be thrown into a team like this, just being able to work together to achieve a common goal has been a really fun experience. People can really have an influential ‘make-or-break’ impact because you never know what you’re going to get. It could be excellent and you could love every second, or it could be not excellent, and you can learn from that…either way, I think that working with new people is fascinating.”

Meredith Salmon
Kayden Will

Kayden Will – Learning Specialist

Proctor Academy, Andover, New Hampshire

“The most effective educational situations I’ve been in have been when I’m working with students in the field and their academics are really applied within their experience, whether that’s doing mountain classroom ecology in the Southwest or in my work as a NOLS instructor. Being in the mountains and seeing things along the trail – I think having that link is something that I think Earthwatch does really well.

“When I look at a project that takes place in mountain peaks, it feels like it’s completely within my comfort zone. That’s my home, that’s my place…even if it’s not the same mountains, it’s an ecosystem that’s familiar. Whereas coming to a place like the tropics, it’s fascinating and complex and totally unfamiliar and totally puts me out of my comfort zone—and that’s not a bad thing. I want my students to be a little bit out of their comfort zones too. When I think of myself leading an expedition, it’s appealing to me to think of being in a situation where I know I have some comfort and can help them as they navigate that discomfort.”

Erin Zarko – Science, Department Head

Vista Nueva High School, Aztec, New Mexico

“I don’t know anything about birds, and the staff did a really good job of giving the overview and then just sticking us out in the field and having us figure it out. One of my favorite things we do at school is study macroinvertebrates, and we do the same thing with the students—they get a quick little overview and then the kids are tossed out there with their guides. So they’re learning on the fly for that whole day how to identify these organisms.

“We don’t have a lot of opportunities to get out and observe actual wildlife around my school, so we’re going to do a study inside my school! One of the things teachers complain about the most is kids leaving class and then wandering around. It’s a really small school — I mean, we just have one hallway. So we’re going to do a study where kids will be in the hallway, for maybe 10 minute shifts, and they’re going to be doing similar stuff — they’re going to mark when a student comes out of a classroom, whose classroom they came out of, where did they go, what did they do, how long did they do it? We’ll do it throughout the day, every day, and then maybe we can see: if there’s a particular class they’re leaving more often than others, if there’s a particular time of day, are there more activities that they do? I think that could be valuable information.”

Erin Zarko


Are you a high school teacher or do you know one who is searching for an opportunity to bring their students into the field? Check out Earthwatch Project Kindle!