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Following Darwin's Footsteps

Interdisciplinary Course Travels to Galapagos

by Kiho Kim

Galapagos Seals

Addressing environmental challenges requires equal measures of science, policy, and communication. These disciplines, however, are often studied in different corners of a campus, and few programs attempt to combine the three.  

Late in the fall of 2008, Leanne Dunsmore, associate dean in the School of International Studies (SIS), brought together faculty from SIS, the School of Communication (SOC), and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) to discuss the possibility of running a team-taught summer class in the Galápagos. Over the following weeks, with full support from our deans, the idea evolved into a program consisting of a cross-disciplinary spring course that would culminate in a trip to the Galápagos in May.  

Practice of Environmentalism: Science, Policy and Communication in the Field brought together Larry Engel (SOC), Simon Nicholson (SIS), and me, along with 24 students drawn from all three schools, to participate in this novel teaching and learning experiment. Over the course of the semester, four multidisciplinary teams of students explored the relationships between science, policy and communication, and began mapping out environmentally-based media projects centered on the Galápagos. Because Larry Engel was unable to join us for the trip, we enlisted Bill Gentile, SOC professor and artist-in-residence, to help students apply "backpack journalism" – reporting on location using tools that can fit in a backpack - production methods in the field.  

Why the Galápagos? For many, this handful of volcanic islands some 1,000 km west of the Ecuador coast is an unofficial shrine to Charles Darwin. In 1835, he visited the islands, collecting mockingbirds and finches during his five-year voyage as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle. But more pertinent for us, the Galápagos Islands represent a relatively untouched corner of our planet where conservationists are now coming into direct conflict with supporters of a growing tourism economy. With full acknowledgement of this irony, we traveled to the Galápagos to study, understand, and document this conflict.  

Galapagos Airplane

On May 16, armed with cameras, sound equipment, snorkel gear, and lots of sun block, we landed on San Cristobal, the eastern-most island and one of only five with human inhabitants. We spent three days swimming with sharks, rays, turtles, marine iguanas, and sea lions, and we laid the groundwork for the team projects. The Fueled By Nature team visited a wind farm as part of their documentary on sustainability. The Fin-Tastics! woke up at 4 a.m. to go out with local fishermen for their project on shark finning, the illegal practice of killing sharks just for their fins. The 1-Der Women started their project on how to be a sustainable tourist.  And Every Finch Counts visited a local school and the Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve to gather information and footage for their multimedia game designed to teach middle school students about invasive species. 

Galapagos Seals

Galapagos Filming

Galapagos Iguana

Galapagos Filming

We left San Cristobal by motorboat on May 19, headed for the island of Santa Cruz, home of the Charles Darwin Research Station. The station is a hub of biological and conservation research and education, and is where Lonesome George, a giant tortoise thought to be the last of his species, is held in captivity. The station also breeds and rears other tortoise species, all of which are endangered, for repatriation to the islands of their origin. We also traveled to the highlands of Santa Cruz to see tortoises in the wild.

Galapagos - Charles Darwin Research Center

Galapagos Turtle

The following day included a long walk through a forest of cactus trees to an expansive beach known for attracting turtles during breeding season. We were treated to the sight of marine iguanas basking in the morning sun, sharks, and Darwin's finches. All the while, the students were scheduling interviews, arranging video shoots, and visiting additional sites for their projects. 

Galapagos Iguanas

Galapagos Finch

Isabela, the largest but least populated of the Galápagos Islands, was our home for the final two days of our tour. On our first day, we hiked up to the rim of the cloud-smothered Sierra Negra, a volcano that last erupted in 2005. Isabela also is home to a tortoise breeding and rearing center. Since 1965, when this program began, this center and two others have bred, reared, and repatriated over 1,000 tortoises. Later that day, we took a short boat ride to see penguins and blue-footed boobies.

Galapagos Turtle

Galapagos Booby

As the sun was setting on our last day in the Galapagos, the students wrapped up their final shoots and interviews. After a celebratory dinner, we packed up our gear and what remained of our sunblock for the trek back to D.C. For some, however, the adventure was not over.  A number of the students signed up to spend four days deep in the Amazon before heading home.  Jungle, bugs, birds, piranhas!  I couldn't stay the extra days, but if we plan the trip again next year, I definitely will.

Galapagos Boat

Galapagos Students