Cactus caper takes teacher to Sea of Cortez

North Ridgeville

By Beth Mlady

North Ridgeville High School biology students will receive quite an education when Elizabeth Katoa talks about what she did on her summer vacation.

As part of the Global Field Master’s Program at Miami University, Katoa embarked on a nine-day trip  in July to conduct ecological research in the San Felipe Desert on the Sea of Cortez, near a fishing village called Bahia de los Angeles. She studied desert and marine ecosystems on the Baja peninsula. Two years ago, she went to Belize as part of the same master’s degree program.

Katoa wanted to go on this trip, she said, because she was “interested in seeing something new.”

“It was very different than Belize,” she said Aug. 18. “It was desert, and the terrain and the ecological portion of it was different.”

But there was also professional development involved, as she was a student leader for other people who were just starting through the graduate program. She is currently pursuing her second master’s degree, which she will achieve in December.

“It gave me the ability to act as an instructor for the course,” she explained. “I was looking to challenge myself with different leadership skills and facilitate these types of discussions. It’s helping me to learn how to teach adults and colleagues.”

The airfare to San Diego and $1,250 graduate course fee were expensive, but Katoa said it was worth every penny.

“I paid for all of it. It’s not cheap,” she said. “However, when you add in the fact that these courses are seven graduate credits … Compared to doing this course somewhere else, it’s definitely discounted.”

Perhaps most important, she came home with a new understanding of arid ecosystems.

“I think the coolest part for me was the desert and the number of cactus we saw,” Katoa recalled. “I think of desert as being lifeless, and I think my students do, too. What blew my mind was that we were in a forest of cactus, and it was 124 degrees. And it was green and there were blooms. It actually rained twice on us. It was just so neat.

“Sitting in front of a video or PowerPoint … I don’t think would have done it justice. To feel the heat of your surroundings, smell the smells, meet the people living there. It really gets your hands dirty. I wouldn’t have gotten the same thing if I was in the classroom.”

Her time was divided into two segments, “half at a working ranch,” she said, “with people using the cactus for different medicinal purposes, and the second half was on the Sea of Cortez.” Katoa saw stingrays, starfish, crabs and other marine life.

“We visited desert islands – sandy, rocky islands – that have some cactus on them,” she added. “I snorkeled with sea lions and whale sharks, which were very passive. They eat plankton. I love that the main themes were education and conservation, and learning how to work with both of those.”

Even though her master’s degree program will soon come to an end, Katoa envisions her field work will continue.

“My hopes are that I can work as an instructor and do these (trips) in the future,” she said, going on to add what she wants most for people to know about her trip. “For teachers, to really look at what kinds of (learning) opportunities are out there and do things you enjoy. It affects how you teach and your content. It will give you that passion.

“I hope my experience will add so much more for my students.”

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