From the Kindergarten Classroom to Costa Rica Conservation Research

By Renee White, Earthwatch Teen Expedition Facilitator

In June of 2019, Earthwatch Teen Expedition Facilitator Renee White left her kindergarten classroom behind to travel to Costa Rica and lead a group of teens on the expedition Conserving Wild Bees and Other Pollinators in Costa Rica. She shares her experience working side-by-side with ten students to study how bees and butterflies are affected by climate change.



I’ll never forget the look of pure excitement on the students' faces when they caught their first orchid bee or glasswing butterfly in the hills of Monteverde! In that moment, the months of preparation and hours of travel faded away from memory. We traveled with 10 students and two teachers from southern California. We had finally made it to the cloud forest to participate in the Earthwatch expedition Conserving Wild Bees and Other Pollinators in Costa Rica, and we were loving it. Even before our boots had been fully broken in, our students had bonded with the field staff and each other as they hiked up and down the altitude transects, surveying plants and collecting specimens.
 

Teen volunteer holding a glasswing butterfly in a collection jar (credit Renee White)
A teen volunteer holding a specimen in a collection jar (credit Renee White)


If you would have visited me in my kindergarten classroom earlier that year and told me I would be leading a group of teen volunteers, participating in conservation research in Costa Rica, I would have thought you were crazy. Don’t get me wrong. I am just as concerned as the next person with the climatic changes that have been happening to our planet. Being a 38-year-old mother of three juggling a busy schedule at work and at home, I thought what could I do to help and how could I get involved?

Through what must have been conservation kismet, I was invited to facilitate a summer teen team with Earthwatch. Throughout the year of planning, the staff at Earthwatch was extremely helpful, professional, and involved as we recruited student volunteers, met with them about expectations, and organized travel arrangements. This was the Earthwatch expedition that they chose to participate in and had their hearts set on. It was evident that everyone at Earthwatch truly cares about connecting people from all walks of life to inspiring opportunities in conservation research.

The week-long adventure began in June 2019 as we flew  six hours from L.A. to San Jose, Costa Rica. For many students, this was their first time traveling anywhere out of the country. The next morning we were greeted by our in-field scientists and headed to the mountain region, Monteverde. To say that our students were excited to assist in pollinator conservation would be an understatement. Seeing teenagers express their voice and desire to help pollinator communities was inspiring to me! I couldn’t wait to team up together with them in the field.
 

Since 2016 Dr. Valorie Peter’s research team has collected thousands of bee and other pollinator specimens along three different elevation gradients in the region (Peters, 2018). They then bring the specimens back to the lab to be analyzed.  It is crazy to think that some of the bees or butterflies netted by our students are going to be relayed from Costa Rica to the University of Kentucky and then onto the pages of valuable data sets used to make a difference for conservation research and the planet! Not only did I see the impact, but the response from the students was evident. During our time there, one student said,
 

One of the most impactful things here is the study that we are helping out with...to see the effect that pollinators are having on plants and where they are going due to climate change. I think it has been informative and helped align me with what I want to do in the future.



The next week in the field, wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We faced the challenges of traveling in a large group, experimenting with new foods and customs, getting a little homesick, and battling bugs and the elements. However, the students faced all of these, not as insurmountable obstacles, but as character-building victories that left them transformed by the end of the week.

This Earthwatch expedition was more than just a volunteer travel trip, it was a truly immersive cultural experience. Our group really got a taste of Costa Rican Pura Vida as we met many locals that have partnered with the Earthwatch staff in the region. One student commented, 
 

Something that really impacted me was seeing the people and the culture here and the locals in Costa Rica. Everyone is so friendly and hospitable...and welcoming and makes you feel like family.



Did I ever picture myself stepping out of the four walls of my kindergarten classroom to contribute to conservation efforts in Costa Rica? No way, but now I can’t picture it any other way. This short week has inspired me to continue to seek ways to make a difference. Currently, I am pursuing a graduate degree in Biology with a conservation focus. Recently, I read that leaders can inspire sustainable behaviors by getting their community into nature where they can make an emotional connection to the environment (Redekop, 2010). It is one thing to read that truth in a book, but I had the privilege of experiencing it first hand in the cloud forest of Costa Rica with 10 of the most inspiring young people I have ever met.
 

 


 

Interested in studying pollinators in Costa Rica? Check out the project webpage, Conserving Wild Bees and Other Pollinators in Costa Rica, to learn more!

 

Citations

Peters, V. E. (2018). Impact of Global Change on Pollinators and Pollination Services. Retrieved from https://earthwatch.org/FieldReports/earthwatch-field-report-conserving-wild-bees-other-pollinators-costa-rica-2018.pdf

Redekop, B. (2010). Challenges and strategies of leading for sustainability. In. B. W. Redekop & S. Olson (Eds.), Leadership for environmental sustainability (pp. 56-66). New York: Taylor and Francis.