It began as a kind of extra credit assignment — for the teachers, that is.
And so, in the final weeks of December 2013, Bainbridge High School AP Environmental Science teacher Jason Uitvlugt and AP Statistics teacher Brad Lewis completed their self-assigned project and returned from a grant-funded three-week-long research trip where they worked closely with volunteers and scientists from the conservation group Earthwatch, studying the effects of humans on the endangered species around the Lajuma Research Centre in South Africa.
They presented the lessons they learned, and how they’d begun applying them to the work done in their classrooms, at a lecture in the BHS Commons, never dreaming that five short years later they’d have returned annually to the bush — plus to a second similar location on yet another continent — with an ever-changing pack of students in tow.
The Lengau program (it means “big cat” in Southern Sesotho) is now something of an institution, and a designated nonprofit making trips abroad yearly and assisting local organizations in the efforts to better understand and conserve the apex predators, primates, and overall biodiversity of the areas they study.
The group now operates in both South Africa, at the Lajuma Research Center, and Peru, working with Hoja Nueva, a nonprofit based in an open-air research lodge set in the remote Las Piedras region of Madre De Dios, where students focus primarily on wildlife and forestry conservation, agroforestry research, and sustainable development (visit www.lengau.org to learn more).
Tyler Moravec, an Eagle Harbor High School senior who has gone on both trips, and is slated to work with the new nonprofit this summer, said for him the experience was life-changing and a crucial factor in his eventual post-high school plans.
“It was a fantastic trip to really open my eyes to what’s out there,” Moravec said. “I’ve now been able to really narrow down my field of study for the future, which has been really nice, to have the experience to learn and know that it’s something I love to do.
“I knew that I wanted to go on to college and study something science-related. I was thinking of Environmental Science or something of that nature, and now I’m actually going to be majoring in Conservation Biology Ecology, which is my chosen major.”
In other ways, too, Moravec said the trip was enlightening.
“With living here on Bainbridge Island, it’s a little bit secluded from the rest of the world,” he said. “And being able to go out to a totally different country around the world and see the different culture, the different history, and the different living conditions, it was a really good eye-opening experience not just for academics and my future but for me as a person, being grateful for what I have here on Bainbridge and really giving me that drive and passion to try and make a difference.”
Despite his first trip being the first time he was away from home for any length of time, and being in an exotic foreign land, Moravec said he felt perfectly safe the entire time – though it was not without uncomfortable moments.
“In Africa it’s their winter and so there’s not a bunch of mosquitos and bugs trying to bite you and things like that,” he said. “But in Peru there was definitely a lot more bugs and they liked to snack on you a little bit, but that’s kind of field research. You just kind of got to go with the blows and I definitely learned long sleeves is a good way to go. Long pants, long sleeves, socks — all of that.”
Bites aside, he remains a program advocate.
“Both trips have unique characteristics to them that make them both fantastic in their own ways and, to be honest, I really cannot think of anything negative to say.”
Hannah Tosnmann, a BHS senior who went on the Peru trip last year, agreed.
“I loved it,” she said. “It’s definitely hard to explain in a concise way for everyone to understand because it feels like it touched upon so many different aspects of my life.
“It showed me what environmental science and statics are like in the field of work instead of just sitting in class and learning about what it could be like,” she added. “But along with that, you get a whole cultural immersion into another place that we don’t really get all the time here. And [you] experience another way of living and the people who do that.”
Tosnmann also said the experience had inspired her to advance her interests, and she intends to study environmental science in college next year, as well as pursue additional opportunities to study abroad.
“It was definitely cool also to just be removed from my life here in general and I could see that with everyone I was with, too,” she said. “Everyone was having more time to reflect on who they wanted to be.”
To mark the anniversary of the program, Lewis chatted with the Review about the history and future of Lengau, what makes the experience worth the trip (and expense) and why it’s good to encourage kids to get a little wild.
* This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
BIR: Although the initial trip was just you and Jason, I understand plans were almost immediately made to return to Lajuma with students. What was your “best case” scenario at the time and were you surprised by the strong outpouring of interest from students? Did you imagine these trips would become an annual staple?
Brad Lewis: That is true, Jason and I won a grant to get us to South Africa. We wanted to learn how statistics and environmental studies were applied in the field of climate studies and animal conservation. While we were at the field site that is when the idea of bringing students back to Lajuma was initially created. Jason and I were so inspired and intrigued by the research being conducted, we thought our students would share our enthusiasm.
Our best case scenario was to find 14 students interested in traveling to South Africa for three weeks, work 12-hour days in the field learning from biologists how our subjects were applied, and then provide lectures at night to give students the educational context to all the data being collected.
In the end, we were beyond pleased and surprised that our initial trip was such a success. We actually started getting inquiries about another trip from student families within a week of our return. We did not think our trips would turn into an annual staple, but enrollment in AP Environmental Science, AP Statistics and Second Year Honors Applied Statistics has grown beyond capacity and we are receiving over 60 completed applications for our trips per year.
BIR: What are the biggest successes so far? What is your new “best case” scenario looking ahead?
BL: After our first year we were overwhelmed by the positive reaction from students and parents. Our course enrollments increased, and inquiries began to come in as early as August. I think our biggest successes so far has been a combination of the volume of students who have shown interest, the amount of support we have gotten from the community and school district, and the continued student desire to exploring fields of study such as climate sciences, environmental studies, analytics and global health during their college years.
At our most recent informational meeting held in the library … it was standing room only. We received over 60 complete applications, including a few applications from students who do not even attend Bainbridge High School.
Our best case scenario would be to have potentially three or more field sites serving BHS students throughout the world in unique and rich bio-diverse environments. Our efforts in South Africa are expanding, but our primary research focus will remain with leopards, primates and animal conservation efforts. We also are working with Hoja Nueva Research Center in Peru. Our research focus is agroforestry, sustainability, community outreach and jaguar density estimates. Currently we are exploring a possible third site in Borneo, home of the clouded leopard, orangutans and some of the most beautiful coral reef in the world.
Ideally, these sites will be run and monitored by ex-BHS students as they also conduct their own research topics while working toward their advanced degrees.
BIR: At least one alumna has already gone on to work very much inspired by her experiences at Lajuma with you. What can you tell me about her and her work, as well as her current involvement in the BHS program?
BL: Sammy Zwicker joined us on a South Africa trip many years ago. She has since then accomplished much, and is doing amazing work in the Peruvian Rainforest. Sammy does many things, among these she serves as a board member, administrator, and field researcher for Lengau. She is also the founder and visionary behind Lengau’s Peruvian partner organization, Hoja Nueva, as well as the co-founder and conservation director of Fashion for Conservation.
Sam is currently both a Ph.D. student and NIH Global Health Fellow through the University of Washington researching ecology, conservation, and zoonoses. She received her bachelor’s with honors from the University’s Program on the Environment in 2012, her master’s in wildlife ecology in June of 2015, and a degree in Nonprofit Management in 2016 through the Evans School. In addition to teaching environmental science courses at the University of Washington, she was President of the National Forestry Honors Society (Alpha Chapter), is a term member of the renowned Explorers Club, and serves as a mentor to over 20 undergraduate and graduate students in research worldwide.
In addition to spearheading Hoja Nueva’s projects within the Amazonian rainforests and communities of Madre de Dios, Peru, several of Sam’s research projects involve assessing the effects of land use change on predators and their prey using camera trapping, estimating densities of regional jaguar and ocelot populations, reintroducing threatened species to the wild, and studying the prevalence and risk factor of tungiasis in Madre de Dios.
BIR: The trip is costly. For parents on the fence about footing the bill, how do you summarize/explain the myriad of educational benefits the students experience by participating?
BL: Yes, the trip is costly. Though, when you realize what the students are getting in return for this cost, it is an amazingly affordable trip. For example, for anyone to travel to South Africa and experience half of what these students are experiencing, I imagine the cost would be three times as expensive with a shorter duration. Due to the connections we have made, and the services we are providing, many organizations and research centers give our students amazing access at a reduced cost.
At Kruger National Park, we have arranged their visit with the designation young science biologists. Kruger is interested in getting young people exposed to and involved in environmental sciences, biology and animal conservation. Therefore, they provide free lectures and waive the entrance and conservation fees. Without the generous support of these outside agencies, the opportunities we are offering our students would not be possible for the cost.
The educational value these students are receiving is enormous throughout the entire process.
First, they have to apply to the trip. Students need to be intentional and clear about their motivations and desires to participate. Students submit written responses and are interviewed. Though these are non-school district trips, we do look to see if students can document their proclaimed interest in environmental sciences and analytics with courses taken and related success in these courses.
Students travel to some of the most amazing places this world has to offer. They see natural beauty beyond measure. They are removed from their cozy community, technologies and safety nets, and are exposed to the vastness of their world. They witness first hand how their learning is applied directly in authentic field sites. They meet biologists and researchers — sometimes not too much older than themselves — who are inspirational and doing important work to better understand and conserve the natural world. Students begin to picture their own future and discover their own passions before even entering college.
We understand all students will not pursue environmental sciences and/or analytics as a career, but exposing them to the possibilities and beauty of this world is an education all on its own.
BIR: I see the program has evolved to be much more involved than simply a field training exercise, that students are actually contributing to real, serious scientific research. What are the benefits for the host organizations — and the animals themselves, even — of having student participants?
BL: The students are contributing to the actual research. Since research field sites usually depend on student volunteers, or researchers completing advanced degrees paying for the opportunity to collect data in remote areas, these research centers are thrilled to help train our students on data collection techniques. Then, for two weeks, they are freed up to focus on other tasks as hand while our students practice their new skills.
One example is with Lashiba, another field site in South Africa bordering Lajuma Research Center. They are conserving their land through eco-tourism. They know their land is protecting a thriving population of leopards, but have no understanding of the exact population details of these apex predators living on their land. They have approached us to request Lengau’s assistance.
We now have plans to establish a camera trap grid on their property, begin to identify the specific leopards living on their property through capture-recapture techniques, and create an identification journal and family tree for the property owners and tourists. We will also provide deliverables of density estimates and occupancy models of the regional apex predators and home ranges for the leopard population surrounding their lands.
Since we do this at no cost, they are more than happy and we can use this entire experience as an educational exercise to assist for our students while helping to understand and protect these animals.