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Sandy Journal

Indian Hills teachers expand classroom learning to all parts of the world

May 26, 2020 11:41AM ● By Julie Slama

A group of students from Indian Hills Middle School traveled to the Dominican Republic town of Bayahibe in June 2019 to help with coral reef restoration. (Rachel Afualo/Indian Hills Middle School)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

What had planned to be an extraordinary spring break for Indian Hills students Ava Weber and Grace Thompson and other students was postponed for a year because of COVID-19.

They had planned to learn about the world by traveling with other students to Costa Rica during the April week to learn about the local economy and culture and how the two correlate to each other. Through Education First Tours, the group planned to tour the country, from the volcano region to the coast where they will hike in the jungle, learn about the coffee and cacao industry, snorkel and go river rafting.

Grace had decided to go to Costa Rica to learn more about the culture, animals and food while Ava wanted to learn about the environment there as well as the culture. Both girls also were excited about getting to go zip lining and for months, have been contributing toward the trip by babysitting.

The group leader is Indian Hills science teacher Rachel Afualo, who, along with her colleague, Michelle Lacross, leads educational travel programs outside of school time.

“We want them to feel, see, and have hands-on learning opportunities to understand more about the world, its people and culture,” Afualo said. “We love making the world our campus.”

However, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Afualo rescheduled the trip for spring break of 2021. Students could either stay with the trip planned a year out or receive travel vouchers from EF Tours, she added.

Trips are still scheduled this summer although they could be adjusted by EF, including a June trip which Lacross has been planning to take eight students to Normandy, Paris and London. 

One student, Kenzie, who wished to withhold her surname, is in an advanced French class, has always wanted to travel to Europe to see “the amazing science and history behind the beautiful landmarks.” She already has researched places she’ll visit in preparation for the trip.

“We want students to understand how small the world is and to understand not only the differences, but our similarities,” Lacross said. 

Afualo led students last June to the Dominican Republic, where the trip had a service component – to work with FUNDEMAR, the Dominican Republic foundation of marine studies, a non-governmental organization dedicated to research and conservation of marine life. There, the students helped with coral reef restoration.

“We learned in a class about what is killing the coral, and, in a lab, what is being done to help save coral life,” she said. “We had hands-on opportunities to learn about coral life, something we don’t get to experience in the classroom.”

One method to help save marine life is to create concrete coral cookies or balls in the lab and transfer those to the ocean, where over time, fish, turtles, dolphins and other life accept it as part of the coral life, she said. 

Afualo and students not only had the opportunity to make those cookies, but to also get in the water to count the specimens in the ocean. They also collected trash on the beach to provide input on what is needed to reduce that pollution — and what they could immediately do.

“I learned that not all sunscreen is coral reef-friendly,” she said, adding that any sunscreen needs to be applied more than 30 minutes before swimming in the ocean otherwise it washes right into marine life habitat.

Her daughter, Lily, a Draper Park eighth-grader, wanted to go on the trip to learn more about marine biology, specifically coral life, and how to take care of it. 

The trip made an impact on her possible future career.

“I think (it would) be really cool to learn more and someday be able to do what I did in the Dominican Republic for a living,” Lily said, adding that she’s learned how to be “ocean safe for the next time I decide to go to the beach.” 

The group, which teamed up with students from Davis, California also went snorkeling, cave swimming and zip lining.

Although there are local guides who assist the groups, Afualo said that both the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica trips allow students to practice Spanish, which helps their language skills.

Both Afualo and Lacross will head upcoming opportunities, which are open not only to Indian Hills students, but to others. 

Afualo is registering students who are interested on a seven-day trip to Belize in 2021. The trip itinerary includes seeing Mayan ruins dating back to 1,500 B.C., a guided jungle hike, zip lining through the rainforest, cave tubing, snorkeling in the Caribbean and other sightseeing.