Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ferrum College, Belize -- and Macaws

If experience is the best teacher then one of the rising sophomores here at Ferrum College must have a head full of lessons.

Take a look at the Ferrum College You Tube Channel and you'll see a couple of recently posted videos from the May e-term. The e-stands for "experiential." That's a big deal here at Ferrum. We put our education students in classrooms as freshmen. Our environmental science students are in the field doing research as undergrads, and every May the kids have a chance to go somewhere and do something cool.

One video shows an interesting study in history that took the form of a mural at Ferrum Elementary School. It's a spectacular piece in the cafeteria that spans more than 40 feet. Among the student artists, only one was an art major -- the rest were there for the experience.

Another video depicts a trip to the Virgin Islands, where Ferrum students studied coral reefs, local culture, and participated in an archeological dig. They brought back tales of barracuda, sharks, and ancient civilizations.

The next video we'll shoot will have more to do with birds and jaguars than fish, and will tie one student in particular to woman whose fight to save the nesting grounds of the scarlet macaw was the focus of a best selling book.

The Backstory.

Ferrum College this year took its first e-term trip to Belize -- a small country in Central America that was once known as British Honduras. During their three week tour, called Rain Forest to Reef: Natural Resources in Belize, students learn about the country's culture, political structure, and of course the environment. In a nutshell, the nation is primarily English speaking, not as corrupt as many of its neighbors and covered in jungle.

One of the students on the e-term trip, Abigail Lewis, opted to stay a little longer -- to intern at the Belize Zoo.

Not to digress too much -- but to understand the significance of that opportunity, you must know a brief history of the Zoo and Sharon Matola, who founded it.

Matola took a round-about route to learning how to handle large cats like lions, tigers and jaguars. (She started out as the wife of a dentist, hopped a train to Florida, joined the circus and never looked back. I told you it was interesting.)

Fast forward to Belize where she is putting that knowledge to work during the shooting of a documentary on jungle animals. The documentary over, the producer packs up and leaves her with critters which cannot be returned to the wild. With no other choice, Matola sticks a post in the ground with a sign that says "Belize Zoo."

All of this is detailed in Bruce Barcott's book, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, which I am currently reading. The book is not unlike other environmental thrillers such as Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. There's intrigue, evil, multiple sub-plots, heroes and tragedy -- but none of it is fiction. It's an actual page-turner.

Ferrum College Assistant Professor of Environmental Science, Glen Stevens left the book on my desk two weeks ago. "If you are going to do a video on the Belize group, you need to read this," he said. Now I see why.

The book details not only Matola's efforts to establish the zoo, but more importantly, her fight to prevent the building of the Chalillo Dam which would flood one of the last nesting sites in Belize of the scarlet macaw -- the beautiful parrot you may have seen for sale in pet stores. The book details the popularity of the birds dating back to European explorers who gave them to kings as gifts from the New World, to Eco-tourists who flock to the jungles to see them in the wild, to the pet trade, where people pay thousands per bird because of their colors and intelligence.

Back to the Ferrum College Angle

If the e-term group received a small dose of this story during their trip, then Abigail got the full IV version.

She is there at that same zoo, with those same jungle cats and yes, Sharon Matola, who is now a world figure when it comes to macaws, jaguars and environmental battles. Stevens has exchanged e-mails with Abby and it appears she is seeing more of the big cats than she is Matola -- but that was to be expected.

No matter. What counts is that she is there. She is learning, and she's doing it from Ferrum College -- where experience counts.

Note: We'll be posting more information, including an interview with Abby after she returns from her adventure.

1 comment:

  1. Great news! Ferrum outside the "box" adventures is encouraging to the rest of the community.