We’re all familiar by now with the environmental crises that are facing our planet. Global climate change, our overdependence on finite natural resources, the damage to sensitive natural ecosystems caused through pollution, urbanisation and industrialisation – all of these are rarely out of the news.
But how many of us respond to these challenges with action? In an age where “slacktivism” (positive action extending only as far as liking a Facebook post or retweeting in support of an issue or social cause) provides a satisfyingly low-effort alternative, we need more powerful and creative ways to engage young people to become actively involved in bringing about environmental change.
As the largest Jewish NGO in education, we believe at World ORT that it is our responsibility to ensure that our students don’t become passive consumers but active citizens of the world. We believe that to change the world, we should start by changing ourselves.
That’s why we’ve taken 30 ORT students out of their urban environment to the rainforest of Panama for the World ORT Ecology Summer School. Our students are all inquisitive and highly motivated academically and we believe that they all have the potential to be the catalyst for positive change. This immersive experience is designed to turn this potential into reality.
Over two intensive and insightful weeks alongside some of the best ecologists, ORT teenagers have learned how to design and conduct scientific research on biodiversity in Panama. The rainforest of Panama, despite its relatively small area, is one of the richest in the world. Did you know that tropical forests cover less than 7 % of the Earth’s land mass but are home to about 50 % of all living things on the planet?
These two weeks have been all about increasing ORT students’ awareness of their surroundings through a total immersion in the rainforest. Not only have students attended powerful and informative lectures on various topics such as the rapid disappearance of bee colonies or the evolution of hummingbirds but, together with local experts and educators including specialists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, ORT students have developed a deep appreciation of the complexity and fragility of natural resources.
Living together with students from other countries has broadened their international perspectives, and exposure to indigenous communities who live in tune with their natural habitats, and activists who are buying up huge tracts of land to prevent deforestation, have all helped to galvanise these young people to action.
”The kids seem to be quite informed about current events and issues facing our environment, from habitat destruction to endangered species and global warming. So they are indeed up to speed on most of those subjects. Now, we are hoping to give more information and data so they can understand better the driving forces which cause these problems and issues.” says Guido Berguido, the renowned Panamanian ecologist leading the Ecology Summer School.
“In their own schools they are more used to having most of their research projects already prepared for them. In the science laboratories, they have set criteria and instructions to follow, and they just have to carry out the various activities from their labs, whereas here they have to start from scratch and come up with their own hypothesis, come up with their own experimental design, gather their own data and analyse it all by themselves.”
Michael Rosental (picture), the first Colombian student to take part in a World ORT Summer School, conducted his research on plant morphology. He studied how plants grow differently depending on their level of exposure to natural sunlight. To do so, they measured the size of the leaves in different locations, in two different fields.
Like his fellow ORT friends, Michael especially enjoyed moving from the theory to practice and being at the centre of the experience.
“Learning science in school, the coolest thing you’ll see is a picture in a book. Here you can see the animals and interact with nature; it’s a completely different way of learning. We have so much nature in our backyard here. We wake up and see all these birds and little animals through the window and that’s very cool. When outdoors, if you just keep quiet and pay attention, you can hear twelve different animal sounds. You don’t get that in the city!”
Other students like Elsie from Peru, Yael from Spain and Raphael from Brazil teamed up to study the behaviour of agoutis. Agoutis come to the resort to eat bananas left at their disposal. For the experiment, our three scientists changed the location of the bananas, placing them in 10cm holes. Some of the holes were covered with dirt, others by leaves to test whether the smelling skills of the agoutis were good enough to orientate themselves and find the new bananas.
Over the past two years, around 60 ORT students have already taken part in the Ecology Summer School. For some, like Argentinian student Valentina Campisi, the experience was a trigger which boosted her interest in the field.
Just after participating in the Summer School in 2016, Valentina received a gold medal at the National Biology Olympiad of Argentina, competing on a topic she wouldn’t have chosen without the Ecology Summer School in Panama. This medal also earned her a scholarship to the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology:
“It was a very enriching experience where not only do we learn about biology, ecology and science but we also learn about other people’s cultures; we learn to work together, respect each other, be responsible and, of course, we learn a lot about Panama, which is a country that has one of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity.”
Daniel Tysman, Head of World ORT’s Education Department, emphasises the value of this programme:
“The opportunities and experiences that these students are gaining throughout each day of the programme are priceless. They are living and breathing scientific research and having the chance to chat to world-class experts on some of the most important environmental issues of our time. It’s very hard work but the pay-off is incredible. For most of our students, this is truly a life-changing experience and we hope to be able to offer this to even more students in the future.”