Coral Reef Ed-Ventures is an innovative, cooperative educational venture between Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize. This school-based project began in 2000 as an effort to facilitate community awareness of reef ecology and to support and encourage reef preservation. Reefs are important because they provide natural protection for coastlines and are the basis of tropical marine fisheries. Reefs also attract tourists, providing substantial income to island and coastal communities.
The Meso-American Barrier Reef
The Meso-American Barrier Reef lies off the coasts of southern Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. The reef extends for 625 miles form north to south, from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula to the islands of the Gulf of Honduras. The reef is second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Off the northeast coast of Belize, Ambergris Caye’s close proximity to the reef allows this small island to boast the title of Belize’s premier vacation destination. Hol Chan was Belize’s first marine reserve, and its mission is to monitor the health of the reef for sustainable fisheries and environmental and economic stability. The island’s economic and ecologic dependence on the reef necessitates a local understanding of the reef’s central role in everyday life.
The Coral Reef Ed-Ventures program is an interdisciplinary effort involving faculty from three departments and the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Smith College. In the first year of the program in San Pedro, two student teachers worked with seven children. It was so successful that by 2006, the program welcomed 50 students ranging in age from 7 to 11 for the two week regular session, with a recently introduced advanced week long program for ages 12 and up. This program was designed for the growing number of children who have outgrown the program, yet are eager for more coral reef education. The course included in-depth study of reef structure and the value of associated habitats, such as lagoons and mangroves, for sustained coral reef health. The course culminated in the production of a reef exploration picture book, which will be used as a teaching tool in future programs.
Smith College undergraduate students with backgrounds in environmental science and education serve as the teachers for the program. During the program, children explore reef ecology through field trips to the beach and reef, conduction in-class experiments, and participating in creative activities with arts and crafts projects, stories, and games. With strong collaborative support from Hol Chan Marine Reserve’s education coordinator and a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer at Hol Chan, the program is able to offer meaningful small group discussions on issues ranging from environmental ethics to the pros and cons of mangrove destruction. Guest speakers whose livelihoods depend on the reef, ranging from tour guides to dive masters to environmental volunteers, emphasize the importance of the reef as a critical resource to everyday life. By the end of the program, the children are able to demonstrate significant knowledge of the coral reef environment by identifying reef organisms, discussing adaptations and symbiotic relationships, and understanding threats facing the reef. The program concludes with a graduation ceremony, during which the school children perform skits using their learned knowledge of the coral reef and receive “Coral Reef Expert” cards.
The children’s enthusiasm in both programs, in addition to the richness and depth of the curriculum content, begs for an extension of the program format. With support from Smith College Environmental Science and Policy Program, the Schultz Fund, the B. Elizabeth Homer Fund, and Praxis we would like to expand the regular course to three weeks, and the advanced course to at least one full week, perhaps longer. Increased community involvement and more field trips during this extended time will further connect the children to their local environment, as well as expanding their outlook to the future.