Vandermeer and Perfecto Labs hold annual educational day with local schoolchildren in Mexico

Ivette Perfecto (arms raised) and John Vandermeer play an ecological game with the children during Ecodía. Image credit this page: Jonno Morris.

Ivette Perfecto (arms raised) and John Vandermeer play an ecological game with the children during Ecodía. Image credit this page: Jonno Morris.

Date: June 24, 2020

Interviewees: Jonno Morris & Sara Donají González Herrera

Jonno is a doctoral student in the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and EEB communications. Sara Donají González Herrera is the operational director of the Peters Foundation Educational Center in Mexico.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

EcoDía is an educational outreach event developed each year since 2017 for the primary school students at the Finca Irlanda school (on the coffee farm where the labs of Professors John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto conduct their research). While it’s a little bit different every year, typically they develop activities related to particular themes having to do with ecology, biology or other scientific fields. The hands-on activities range from games to outdoor exploration to model demonstrations.

“Ideally, the activities in EcoDía raise awareness of the role of nature in their family’s livelihoods and inspire the school kids to help conserve it. Maybe some will even aspire to study biology further in secondary school and beyond.” ~Jonno Morris

They were planning an EcoDía this year in early June, but with the covid crisis and the cancelation of their summer field season, it seemed inevitable that they would also cancel EcoDía this year. However, they recently decided to take the opportunity to develop some material from a distance, so they put together an educational activity booklet about COVID-19 that makes the pandemic accessible to kids, educates them on sanitation and safety measures, and includes a little bit of microbiology and disease ecology. Everything is shut down on the farm, so because they imagined many of the kids may be bored at home, they wanted to give them a fun way to learn on their own and share with their family members.

The following questioned were answered by Jonno Morris:

What inspired these events?

In the fall of 2016, I had the opportunity to stay at Finca Irlanda for an extended period of time by myself. When I wasn’t doing field or lab work, I spent a lot of time socializing with people in the community. Unfortunately, resources for public education are fairly limited in rural agricultural communities in the region and schools are often not well supported by the government. At the time, most of the teachers were volunteers and there was a pretty quick turnover rate, which can be disruptive for students. I started thinking that, in addition to our research, there might be an opportunity for our group to engage a little bit more with the community and to put our experience as educators to work. After chatting with some other members in my lab and thinking back to my experiences volunteering for the BioBlitz at D-Town Farm in Detroit, we came up with the idea of EcoDía.

What are you hoping the children and others get out of it?

For me the goal of EcoDía is two-fold. First, it is an excellent opportunity for our group to engage and connect with the community on the farm. This builds trust and allows community members to learn more about who we are and why we are there. It also pushes students in our lab group to think beyond the data they are collecting and to consider the agroecosystem as a whole, people and all. It forces us, as researchers, to humanize the impact of the agricultural systems that we study and not just conceptualize them as academic abstractions.

The second aim is to provide a novel educational experience for the kids and to get them excited about science, nature and conservation. Of course, since most of the farm workers spend their days in the field, many of the children already know the system and many of the organisms better than us scientists, but EcoDía offers the chance to see all of that from a different perspective. They might have already seen Azteca ants, for example, but maybe they don’t know about their role in controlling pests or haven’t thought about why these populations fluctuate throughout the year. Ideally, the activities in EcoDía raise awareness of the role of nature in their family’s livelihoods and inspire the school kids to help conserve it. Maybe some will even aspire to study biology further in secondary school and beyond.

“Children are full of energy and always ready to participate in EcoDía. They are excited to see new science experiments every time. They especially like to manipulate small bugs and animals, they also love to try new gadgets such as tweezers, test tubes, butterfly nets and microscopes.” ~Sara Donají González Herrera

To read how this programming impacts the scientists, students, and teachers, you can read the full interview here.