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Eight Science Teachers Got the Chance to Go on Far-Flung Expeditions This Summer, and They Returned With New Insights and a Renewed Commitment to Their Profession. : Turning the World Into a Laboratory

December 11, 1988|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

This summer, eight area science teachers had the opportunity to do something they rarely have the chance to do--science.

Not reading about science, or teaching science or taking a night course, but actually doing scientific field work on expeditions in the South Pacific and the Caribbean.

With grants of $1,600 from the Peter S. Bing family and the charitable Ahmanson Foundation, the eight participated in expeditions sponsored by Earthwatch, a nonprofit organization that arranges for volunteers to join scientific expeditions throughout the world.

Spiny Anteaters

This summer, the local teachers tracked spiny anteaters through the Australian outback, catalogued corals on a storm-battered reef in Fiji and studied medicinal plants in the Virgin Islands. They came back with new insights into the sciences they teach and with a renewed commitment to their profession. They spent only a few weeks in the field. But as Culver City biology teacher Melinda Temple Ahdoot said: "It was as if I had been away for a year instead of a month. I came back so excited and eager to share the experience with my students."

Ahdoot, who lives in Sherman Oaks, has been a science teacher for 24 years. But until this summer, she had never done field work. In July and August, Ahdoot spent 2 weeks on Kangaroo Island, off the wild southern coast of Australia, chasing the elusive echidna, a spiny anteater that is one of only two mammals in the world that both lay eggs and suckle their young (the other is the platypus).

Working with other volunteers under the direction of a zoologist from the University of Adelaide, Ahdoot pulled on heavy gloves and went out daily seeking echidnas. When she and her colleagues found the bristly creatures, they popped them into burlap sacks and brought them back to the field station where they were studied, their sexes determined and fitted with tiny transmitters before being returned unharmed to the wild.

Ahdoot learned that the gender of an echidna can be gleaned from its back feet. The males have spurs on both back feet, the females lack spurs or have only one (the females also have marsupial-like pouches). More important, she learned that the grand discoveries of science are grounded in the careful, systematic collection of data that doesn't always seem important at the time.

"We did a lot of grunt work, that's for sure," said colleague Thomas Laughlin, a Hacienda Heights resident who teaches biology at Rowland High School in Rowland Heights. "But you feel like you are accomplishing something. You feel like you are part of something bigger."

Warned of Hazards

The echidna seekers had been warned before their trip of the dangers they might encounter. "Ocean swimming is not recommended as the great white pointer sharks would like to eat you," expedition leader Roger Seymour wrote in a briefing memo. "The greatest danger is falling or getting swept from the rocks on the coast or turning a vehicle over on the roads that are paved with pebbles like ball-bearings. Or you could get lost in the bush."

But instead of poisonous snakes and other dangers, Ahdoot recalls one high point after another. "When you got up in the morning and went out of the research station, you had to wade through 6 to 10 kangaroos trying to get \o7 into \f7 the research station. If they got in, you had to walk them around in a circle to get them out because they can't go backwards because of their big tails and back feet."

In addition to studying Australian wildlife, the teachers had the opportunity to observe human adaptation in the outback. Instead of mailboxes, most of the island's residents put out old refrigerators or barrels. As Ahdoot explained in an account of her trip made available to other teachers, "people who live a good distance from a town or a store order their groceries by phone. The school bus or another resident who might be going in that particular direction will drop off a neighbor's order at their 'mailbox.' "

Five of the teachers went to Fiji, formerly known as the Cannibal Isles, where they surveyed a coral reef that had been severely damaged several years ago by a typhoon. The reef was being studied by University of Toronto ecologist David Kobluk before the storm, and the catastrophe gave him a rare opportunity to study a reef as it recovers from a natural disaster. Toby Manzanares, a Glendale resident who teaches biology at Schurr High School in Montebello, described his field work in Fiji as "a rich education."

Unlike some of the others, Manzanares has done field work before. He regularly takes students to Baja California to study the natural history of the California gray whale. In Baja, he said, he and his students sometimes can't sleep at night because of the singing of the nearby whales. "It sounds like they are in the next sleeping bag," he said.

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