COMMENTARY: Forever Changed: Reflections from the Galapagos Islands

I am forever changed. My transformation started in Guayaquil, Ecuador—the first stop on my journey to the Galapagos Islands on a study tour with 19 other teachers participating in the Toyota International Teacher Program. My question about cleanliness at one of the city’s renovated parks was answered with, "First you must change the people in their hearts and their minds. Then they will take care of what you can change with money." This profound statement was delivered on top of a double-decker tour bus by a guide whose name and face have already been lost to me, but I remember his words every day. Who could have guessed that the failed overhauls in education, the sluggish move to alternative energy sources or the careless disposal of recyclable materials could all benefit from an Ecuadorian tour guide’s simple philosophy?

The Galapagos Island origins of the tortoises can be identified by the shape of their shells.© PENNY SMELTZER

How I Made It to The Galapagos Islands

I applied to be part of Toyota’s Galapagos Islands study tour because I am deeply interested in the animals I knew inhabited the area. What’s more, the islands are at the forefront of environmental sustainability and stewardship studies, beginning with Darwin’s work more than a hundred years ago. I was also hoping to expand my professional teaching skills, increase cultural awareness among my students and enhance their understanding of environmental issues around the world.

The islands, a designated World Heritage site, home to some of the globe’s most interesting animals and ecosystems, are a region where the struggle for solutions to environmental challenges is magnified by the isolation of its people (just 28,000 people live on only three percent of the islands) and the rapid effects of declining natural resources. More importantly, though, the islands offer examples of success. The Baltra Fuel Terminal renovation, the eradication of goats on Isabela Island and the recycling project on Santa Cruz Island are excellent examples of promising solutions to tough problems. But as in the U.S., the people of the Galapagos Islands strive to make their lives better, a process that is often in conflict with the long-term protection of natural resources.

Environmental Challenges and Human Solutions

The effects on the Galapagos Islands can already be seen. The island’s challenges—waste management, energy sources, introduced species and human population growth—are similar to problems we face here in the U.S., but for them they’re on a much smaller scale. Fortunately, this smaller scale has the potential for more creative and lasting solutions. Fewer people need to buy into the solutions, and the results of changes can be seen relatively quickly.

But again, the hearts and minds of the people must change to positively impact change for the environment as a whole. That is another important lesson I’ve learned—we must first meet human needs before we can meet the needs of the environment. Simply breeding tortoises will not protect the habitat tortoises need to survive. Putting all efforts into protecting the environment will simply leave people further behind.

A Synergy between U.S. and Galapagueño Teachers

Texas High School teacher Penny Smeltzer meets a sea lion.© PENNY SMELTZER

A key part of the teacher program was to not only explore the islands from an ecological and evolutionistic perspective, but also to share teaching methods with Galapagueño instructors. My U.S. colleagues and I began with the idea of sharing with Galapagueño teachers how to educate students using cross-curricular environmental lessons. The more we talked with the Galapagueño instructors, the more similarities we discovered. We found that an ecological approach could be used in every discipline, and I learned that Galapagueño teachers, as well as teachers all over the U.S., are trying to do what I try to do: teach responsibility for the planet one student at a time.

After spending time in the Galapagos Islands, it surprises me how much I still think about the people I met there. Their kindness and strong values struck me immediately. The Galapagueño teachers reacted with surprise when I asked about the “values instruction” listed after several teacher names in the school directory. "We all teach values. It’s part of every classroom curriculum," they said. The results were obvious during my friendly encounters with shopkeepers, children, restaurant workers, educators, wildlife workers, guides and people on the streets.

The U.S. teachers we traveled with also taught me a great deal. In just two weeks, we became lifelong friends with a common goal. We began sharing lesson plans, ideas and challenges immediately upon our return. I am filled with great hope for the positive change these teachers will bring to their classrooms.

Bringing It All Back Home

Just thinking about my adventure in the Galapagos Islands reinforces how difficult the experience is to relate to others. The question, "How was your trip?" is impossible to relay during a two-minute chat between classes.

I am eager for opportunities to share my lessons from the Galapagos Islands. So far, I have coordinated a related student workshop in Dallas, Texas and an AP session in Houston, Texas. This summer, I am conducting three, week-long institutes in the Southwest U.S., one in Las Vegas, Nevada and a group meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. All sessions are statistics-based and will include examples and lessons from the Galapagos Islands.

Learning of the accomplishments of my fellow travelers, seeing the results of work on the islands and understanding specific areas in need of improvement has revitalized my motivation to work on conservation efforts. Coincidentally, a parent of a former student contacted me shortly after my return. It turns out that her son and his friends were home discussing their future plans and reminiscing about high school. They now have college degrees. One is going into alternative energy research, one into public policy making and another taking a job with the National Park Service. She wanted me to know they started talking about how proud I’d be of their choices, since I always emphasized environmental activities in class. Now I know for sure that once related lessons get out there, they begin to make a difference.

I have already had success sharing details of my Galapagos Islands experience in the multiple classes I teach. But the special moments of discovery were so many that it will take many presentations to fully explain. Here is just a sample of memories and lessons that strike me:

" People can communicate without knowing each others" language;
" The balance between human development and conservation of natural resources is precarious at best;
" Conservation takes funding, experts, teachers, responsible business policies and responsible government;
" A simpler lifestyle is better for the planet and the spirit;" Fresh water is valuable
and limited;
" Lava lizards are fast, but finches are faster:
" The island origins of the tortoises can be identified by the shape of their shell.

Overall, my most important lesson from the Galapagos Islands is that it is imperative to teach the value of environmental stewardship worldwide. Biodiversity cannot be recovered once lost. Responsibly protecting natural resources requires all stakeholders on board to make the

necessary changes. And the Galapagos Islands serve as the best microcosm to teach us all.

PENNY SMELTZER is an Advanced Placement (AP) statistics teacher at Westwood High School in Austin, Texas.

CONTACT: Institute of International Education