17 Huntington North students spend spring break trip on ‘science experiments’ in Belize

Seventeen Huntington North High School students participated in the science experiments of a lifetime when they spent their recent spring break in the tiny Central American country of Belize.

Led by HNHS science teachers Melanie Leas and Reed Sturm, the group spent nine days on the ecology-based study trip in order to research manatees and water quality. They also spent some time on some unusual tours, Leas says.

“When we first got there, we spent a couple of days at a jaguar nature preserve, which is like 200,000 acres,” she says. “We studied rainforest ecology because we were actually in the rainforest. We hiked to different waterfalls, and we saw a plane crash – an old plane crash.”

After a couple of days, the group hopped a bus to the central portion of Belize, where they then caught a boat that took them out into the ocean, then to the mouth of a river, where they rode 2-1/2 hours to Payne’s Creek Research Station. That’s where they spent the majority of their time, conducting various experi- ments and tests.

“Every morning we would get up, and we would get back on our boats, and we would go back out into the ocean,” Leas explains. “As we were traveling to the ocean, we were going through this marshy area. There are lots of low-lying shrubs and roots. That’s a manatee habitat, so we got to see some manatees, which was really cool. We did some water quality testing at the places where we spotted the manatees.”

Out in the open ocean, the group headed to some of the smaller islands, where they spent several days in different locations conducting research on sea grass and went snorkeling in order to study the coral reef.

“They were actually in the water with waterproof paper and pencils, and they were measuring the sea grass and looking at the abundance of sea grass in specific areas,” Leas says. “That all reflects on how healthy the ecosystem is.”

The HNHS students were aided by biologists and researchers, who helped them collect the data. In addition, they met up with two instructors from Ecology Project International, who led the kids through the trip’s activities.

The group also “roughed it” a bit by staying in cabins at Cockscomb Research Basin and Payne’s Creek that had limited electricity, mostly run by solar energy, and no hot water. And no cell phone service.

“It’s very ecological-based,” Leas adds. “They want the kids to come home with a better understanding of taking care of the environment and being more aware of how you use things and if it’s really necessary for you to use them.”

Behind the cabins, an open field afforded another study area, as the young scientists watched yellow-headed parrots – an endangered species – fly in from the jungle to the savannah to roost for the night, Leas says.

“The kids actually did a little bit of research and found out how many birds usually come back together,” she said. “While they were there in Belize they had to come up with a research project to focus on. Some kids focused on the manatees, some kids focused on the birds and some focused on the sea grass.”

Those students who chose to collect data on the parrots turned their findings over to local rangers with the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment. Toledo is a district of Belize.

The group also discovered a bit of the culture of the country when they took a day and boated to a fishing village, where they met five families living there.

“They cooked us lunch, and in return, we actually cleaned up their beach for them,” Leas says. “So, the kids loved that. They had trash bags and they just went crazy picking up trash on the beach. And that was another one of the research projects. Kids were wondering what kind of trash they would find – if it would be plastic, or what kind of plastic … They felt firsthand that they were making a difference by cleaning stuff up.”

Another place they visited was a Mayan cultural center, where they made homemade tortillas from scratch and tasted homemade chocolate during their tour.

They also climbed a couple of mountains to see waterfalls, and spent some time on a deserted island called West Snake Caye, where they relaxed on the beach, swam and went snorkeling.

For HNHS students Cameron Jagger and Grace Sell, it was the first time they had made a trip outside the U.S. Both counted the experience as a life-changer.

“It was honestly so amazing. It was a whole different atmosphere between Belize and America, seeing how they live down there,” Jagger says. “When you come back here, you take things for granted here.”

Jagger, a senior preparing to graduate, is planning to attend Indiana University and study accounting. But he says he may now change his major to environmental sciences.

“Down there on that trip, that is what our instructors went to college for, and to see the amazing opportunity that they got, being able to open 17 students’ eyes to a different world, it just hit me like a wall on the trip,” he says. “It was just something that I’ve never experienced.”

Jagger’s research project was on the yellow-headed parrot. His group walked about an hour to where they sat in a field, counting the birds that came in to roost for the night.

Sell, a freshman at HNHS, noted the similarities between the people of Belize and those back home.

“It was really exciting. I didn’t expect what I saw, actually,” she explains. “You expect if you go out of the country it would be a lot different, but the people are really nice and it’s just awesome to see different places that you’re not used to, such as the ocean.”

Sell’s project was picking up the trash on a public beach at Punta Negra. Her group filled 10 trash bags full.

“Most of the trash you find there is actually Styrofoam, even though they say it’s mostly straws,” she adds.

Sell also had fun playing sand volleyball and interacting with the youngsters they met.

“We got to play – they called it ‘shark’ – and one kid was the shark and he tried to attack us,” she says. “It was really neat!”

She adds that she hasn’t decided on a career choice yet, but says she’s now leaning toward studying marine biology because of her experience in Belize.

“Especially snorkeling,” she says. “I’d never been snorkeling before, and just going snorkeling, it just opened my eyes to like – wow! – there was really a lot of things in the ocean that you don’t really realize are there. Especially the fish and the coral reef – that was definitely my favorite part.”

At the end of the trip, the students made a presentation of their findings, the culmination of all the research they gathered during their studies. Leas says they returned home with more awareness that the world in which they live in Huntington County is small compared to what’s out there.

“It makes them feel like they need to do more,” she adds. “I’ve had kids come to me and say, ‘We want to do something over the summer. We want to go somewhere; we want to study animals; we want to help.’ I just think that’s awesome. Before they go on this trip, they hear about things but they haven’t seen them first-hand. So, when they come home they can say, ‘You guys’ – they can tell their classmates, ‘There’s tons of trash on the beach. You really need to be careful about what you throw away and how you throw it away.’”

The Huntington North Science Department is planning to take another trip during the 2020-21 school year, next time to Costa Rica to study sea turtles.