York student explorers join global collaboration in Brazil

York students Patty McMurray, Andrew Fitzgerald and Todd Brockelman (left to right) gather water quality data in a freshwater channel of the Pantanal.
York students Patty McMurray, Andrew Fitzgerald and Todd Brockelman (left to right) gather water quality data in a freshwater channel of the Pantanal, a region of Brazil.

York Middle School science teacher Jeff Wilford might annually explore the swampy wetlands of Brazil, but don’t mistake him for Indiana Jones. It’s research he wrestles, not anacondas.

Wilford admits he’s not much of an adventurer, but when the opportunity arose to partner with Earthwatch and the National Geographic Education Foundation to travel with a team of educators to the Pantanal region of Brazil in 2003, Wilford dusted off his pith helmet.

Since 2006, Wilford has returned to explore the Pantanal each summer with students from York High School.

“We wanted to give students a real dose of what it means to be a biologist in a remote and challenged region of the world,” Wilford explained. “As well, we have strived to create an unmatched cultural experience.”

Central to the scientific research conducted by Wilford’s team is the MacBook computer each student received as part of the statewide Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Wilford depends on the Mac’s “simplicity and reliability” while instructing his students to document and journal information, create ongoing blogs and even collaborate live via Skype with Brazilian biologists working on the project.

Various subregional ecosystems exist in the Pantanal, each with distinct hydrological, geological and ecological characteristics. Over the years, York students have studied hydrology and water quality, peccaries, giant river otters, herpes, caiman and forest biodynamics.

In one particular trip, students encountered and documented wildlife such as anaconda, piranha, giant anteaters, tapirs, ocelots and mountain lions, making for some interesting “letters from camp” back to their families.

“From my first visit to the Pantanal, I have incorporated technology as a means to create interest and build capacity for the project,” Wilford said.

York students Gavin Fischer and Anna Schindler help develop a stream profile in the highland region of Taboco, Brazil.
Students Gavin Fischer (lower left) and Anna Schindler (right) assist biologist Donald Eaton (upper right) in developing a stream profile in the highland region of Taboco, Brazil, under the supervision of York Middle School science teacher Jeff Wilford.

“On several of our trips, for example, I conducted a series of ‘live connects’ with my students back in Maine and uploaded photos of our work or created a Skype video connection,” he explained. “I firmly believe we need to get all our kids involved at the earliest possible age so they can see their role in making the world a better place to live.”

As a part of the project, Wilford has worked as an advisor and educational consultant on a high-definition film that documented high school students conducting research around the world. Wilford’s film, A Year on Earth, focused on Brazil and aired on the Discovery Channel in 2007.

Since inception, the project has received universal support from the York community and beyond. District leaders have praised the students’ meaningful work in and out of the classroom, and parents have created successful fundraising activities.

Wilford has ensured that the mission and the students stay true to the tenets of Earthwatch – to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. Parents of past student explorers have told Wilford their participation has “changed the way their child viewed the world” and their place in it.

“The most compelling thing I have learned is that problems that seem insurmountable are only that way if we refuse to get involved,” Wilford said. “It is not easy, and it takes hard work, creativity and a desire to make a difference. I believe that is the most significant thing our students have learned from this project.”

On June 27, Wilford led a fresh team of 12 York students back to central South America and the marshy basins of Brazil. This is Wilford’s eighth trip to the Pantanal. It’s a new year with new student scientists, but the work remains the same – to help local government leaders strike a balance between the economic and environmental interests in a region under pressure.

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