Education Opinion

Preparing for My Trip

By Barbara Purn — June 24, 2006 3 min read
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I have just completed the school year with my second graders, cleaned out my classroom, written report cards, and am now ready to really focus on my upcoming trip! I leave July 5, which is only about 12 days away. I am getting excited, realizing that it’s really going to happen, and my months of preparing for it are about over. I’d like to let you know what led up to me going to Kenya to research monkey behavior.

I teach at Villa Academy in Seattle. We are an independent Catholic school, preschool through 8th grade, with about 400 students. I have taught there 8 years. Part of our second grade curriculum is a unit on Endangered Animals. The students really enjoy our work on this topic but I felt the need to bring it a bit closer to their lives and more meaningful to them. I learned about Earthwatch Institute, which conducts programs all over the world, helping animals and the environment. It has been around for 35 years doing great work, and I heard that traveling with them and working on a project was very rewarding. I also learned that they offer fellowships to teachers, which pay for the expenses of the trip outside of travel, passports, visas, etc. I applied in January and heard in early February that I had been accepted. I remember the feeling of reading that letter, “Wow, I’m going to Kenya!”

The project I will be working on is on the east coast of Kenya, along the Indian Ocean. These Sykes monkeys, which live in a forested area of ancient ruins (Gedi Ruins), are actually not endangered, though some of their relatives are threatened. They live in an area rich in tree fruits, but have been recently getting food from humans encroaching into their areas. Some they steal and some they have been fed. This appears to be causing aggression and competition in the hoarding or protecting of their food stores. Our job (myself and 6 other teachers from all over the US) is to record the behavior of certain females (they are the matriarchs of the troop), and to then see if they are showing signs of stress. The scientists that lead our program will also be collecting and testing fecal samples to see if stress hormones are present. They want to find out if these monkeys (a type of guenon) have behavioral changes, because of this provisioning, that affect their health.

Whew! All this sounds very scientific, and actually I tried my best to ‘translate’ into easier terms all the literature I got from the lead investigators. For my second grade students the easiest way for me to explain the work (before I even get there and really don’t even know myself!) is to say that I am helping scientists learn what happens to monkeys’, and maybe even humans’ health, when they are stressed over something like food sources. We hope to learn how to help them before they become endangered.

My work thus far has been to learn all I can about Kenya, read some books and literature, watch videos, and to begin to memorize the faces and physical characteristics of about 9 of the female monkeys I’ll need to recognize. That’s the hardest part so far! I’ve been practicing with an on-line Monkey Quiz, made by our Principal Investigator, Steffen Foerster. Go ahead and try it and see how you do-I only got 7 of 9 right when I tried it and I’ve got to really practice!

I secured my plane tickets long ago, renewed my passport, got my visa for Kenya, got all my shots and medications to take along (malaria etc.) and have recently been trying to get in better physical shape. We will need to be able to walk about 3 miles carrying a day backpack, binoculars to our faces, with hiking boots on, long pants and sleeves (for protection from sun, insects and snakes!) in very hot, humid weather. Today I walked Green Lake and only got a few strange looks as I wore my boots, backpack and binoculars around my neck. I guess I looked like a tourist. I keep my binoculars by the kitchen window and frequently pretend that the squirrels and crows are monkeys and I need to follow their movements in the trees and on the ground.

My big question is: does closely following every movement of a stressed monkey, following them all day, make them more stressed? Maybe that should be MY hypothesis!

The opinions expressed in My Summer in Kenya are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.