Trips were no vacations

SCPA students learn lessons in D.C., Cayman Islands

A student on the SCPA trip to The Caymans swims with stingrays at Stingray City. (Submitted photo)

Many St. Croix Preparatory Academy students have not stopped learning just because the calendar says it’s summer.

Twelve SCPA students returned early this month from a first-time trip to the Cayman Islands where they studied marine biology in a non-traditional way. Another group of 41 eighth graders went to Washington D.C. at the start of the summer.

The D.C. trip, organized by Jennifer Christians, is in it’s fifth year.

“It’s a really well-supported opportunity by teachers, parents and administrators, which really helps kids learn in a different way,” Christians said.

The D.C. trip takes tours of the Capitol so students can experience history first hand and reinforce what they learned during the past school year. Other stops include Arlington National Cemetary, the Holocaust museum and various monuments.

The first-year Cayman Islands trip, organized and led by SCPA teacher John Vallez, focused on learning about marine biology throughout the entire experience.

“I was lucky enough to go on a similar trip in high school and that’s where my passion for science started. I hoped that the kids could learn about the reefs and then use that knowledge to advocate for that,” Vallez said. “They learned a lot of stuff and were able to learn it all firsthand. It was a valuable experience for them.”

There were many pre-trip meetings to teach students information they would need when they were in the Caymans. The class was open to SCPA students who had gone through biology, so most upper-school students were able to attend.

“It was great to front load that information to help them understand what they were seeing and it did really make a difference for a lot of students, because they already knew what we were working with when we got there instead of picking it up along the way,” Vallez said.

The days in the Caymans were long. Students awoke 7:30 a.m. and turned in at 10:30 p.m. Activities included two to three underwater dives a day, a snorkeling trip, a trip to Stingray City, a meeting with a turtle researcher and a visit to a turtle farm.

Soon-to-be SCPA senior Katy Lundquist called it the best experience of her life, even though she was nervous to go at first.

“I definitely was nervous because when I got there I hadn’t gotten completely certified in whatever lake we had trained in in Wisconsin and the water there was absolutely freezing. Once I got into the ocean though, it was a completely different experience than in Minnesota. Visibility is 100 feet,” she said. “At first I was so nervous about diving that I wasn’t in the right mindset, I thought about backing out then. Once I got there it was awesome and I’m absolutely just ecstatic that I decided to go, it was the best experience ever.”

Dive trips included swimming through the reefs and exploring an sunken decommissioned U.S. military ship serving as an artificial reef to help spur coral growth in the Caymans, according to Vallez.

“It’s pretty beat up. They’re trying to preserve specific areas and have outlawed a lot of fish that aren’t allowed to be fished. It’s a high tourist destination and cruise ships come through a lot. I hope that I got the kids to appreciate it and look at it because in 50 years it might now be there anymore,” Vallez said. “It’s sad to see. I’ve been there a couple times and every time it’s different. I hope that we helped to make the students not only be aware of it but to also become advocates for the habitat.”

Other trips to the turtle farm and Stingray City let the students have hands-on interaction with wildlife.

“The turtle farms were really controversial and we had a really interesting discussion with the kids about harvesting turtles when they’re endangered for food. It led to a cool dialogue and conversation,” Vallez said.

“We talked about conservation and preservation, because at the turtle farm we learned that half of the turtles are used for food and half are let go. We also talked with a turtle researcher about what happens with turtles and how they interact with other species,” Lundquist added.

Vallez said the group spent two hours talking with the island’s lead turtle researcher, which he felt was very beneficial to the students.

Although Vallez believes it might be tough for the SCPA students to return to the traditional classrooms, he was encouraged by their eagerness to learn over during the Caymans trip. He added that he’s had parents call him to say their children want to become marine biologists now. Lundquist is one of those students.

“I went on the trip and just fell in love with it. But I was talking with my mom and she had mentioned that there were lots of circumstances that indicated I was interested in studying marine biology. When I was little I’d sit at Cabela’s in the aquarium for two hours and while we were up at the cabin all my friends would be jumping and splashing in the water and I’d be sitting on the shore playing with crayfish. So I’ve been interested in it for awhile but the trip really showed me how much I like it,” Lundquist said.

Lundquist is already saving up to go on the trip next year as a junior leader.

Contact Avery Cropp at [email protected]