A once-in-a-lifetime trip for biology and civil engineering students to the Galápagos Islands brought classroom learning to life during fall break in October.
“It’s one thing to read and learn about these things in class but to see them with my own eyes was like a dream,” said Chidinma Chigozie, a junior neuroscience and behavior major, one of 14 students and two professors who took the study trip for a class called “Field Practicum – Galápagos Islands.”
The Galápagos Islands are famed for the crucial role they played in Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution. They remain important today as a living scientific laboratory containing plants and animals that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Not only did students travel to the islands for real-world experience to observe the wildlife and geography of the islands, but they also conducted field work and research. Back at home, also as part of the class, students taught children at the Robinson Community Learning Center about the importance of the Galápagos Islands, since a greater implementation of sustainable practices requires educating people and inspiring a desire to preserve the natural beauty of Earth.
Jeremy Fein, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences in the College of Engineering, and Gary Lamberti, the Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland, CSC, professor of Aquatic Science in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, led the trip and taught the students about the wonders of the islands. The experience allowed students to appreciate the biology and geology of the islands while also conducting independent research involving observation as Darwin did.
“I feel like the students learn more that they will remember for the rest of their lives during one day of a trip like this than they might in a semester-long classroom course,” Fein said.
Sydney Harris, a junior environmental science major, explained that she had learned about Darwin and the theory of evolution many times in school, but the experience of witnessing the islands and their biodiversity was different from anything that she could have found in a textbook, and other students agreed.
“We were able to apply the different scientific ideas that we’ve been taught to real-world situations,” Chigozie said.
The unique biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands places it at the crossroads of various scientific fields and makes it important for continued research and conservation. The islands also provide an opportunity to learn several areas of science, including ecology, geology, evolution, and environmental science.
Many of the students emphasized how incredible it was to see so much diversity within a small geographic area. Anna McDonald, a senior environmental science major, reflected on how each location felt entirely different because of how much the geography and wildlife varied throughout the islands.
“We saw completely new species and landscapes which made it feel as though we were traveling to a new country or even planet each day,” she said.
The uniqueness of the islands also meant that students saw plants and animals that cannot be found elsewhere.
“We were all in awe seeing blue-footed boobies feeding, magnificent frigate birds flying overhead, [and] seeing sea lions and sea turtles while swimming,” Harris said. “One of my favorite parts of the trip was snorkeling on Isabela Island with huge sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, sea cucumbers, and many different types of fish.”
Emily Kozlowski, a senior biology major, described how little the animals feared humans, and she enjoyed being able to see the wildlife up close.
“Birds, tortoises, iguanas, sea lions, and even marine life like sharks, sea turtles, and fish just hung out and did their thing right next to us. It was so interesting to observe natural behaviors that weren't altered by our presence,” she said. “Because of this, we were able to see so many cool things that we would never have the chance to observe somewhere else.”
Other students explained that their favorite component of the trip was hiking along the rim of a volcano that was active as recently as 2018.
“The pahoehoe lava flows were truly amazing. It's mesmerizing to be able to imagine lava cooling in such amazing patterns,” said Maeve Murdock, a junior biology major, adding that the trip cemented the importance of conservation and expanding sustainability globally. “If a tiny, remote place like the Galápagos can be extremely sustainable and ecologically responsible, so can the rest of us. We need to do better as a society in prioritizing solar energy and minimizing waste.”
Noah Gonring, a senior environmental science major, agreed with the idea of utilizing the Galápagos Islands as a model for broader conservation efforts but recognized that implementation of sustainable practices and ecological preservation requires widespread cooperation.
“To restrict the use of the land requires cooperation between residents, policymakers, businesses, and law enforcement, and from what I could tell, the vast majority of people on the islands are in support of this cooperation. If other places could do this too, the world would be a prettier place, and the Galápagos exemplify this,” Gonring said.
Back at home, the level of engagement the students saw among the children at the Robinson Center is a cause for hope, some students said. In fact, Murdock was pleasantly surprised.
“The kids, although young, maintained an astonishing interest level throughout our presentation about Galápagos species! It was super fun to work with them and get them excited about science,” she said.
For Gonring, the children’s interest and enthusiasm offer hope for the future of implementing sustainable global conservation efforts.
“As an Environmental Science major, it is reassuring to see young people interested in the natural world and its wonders,” he said.
And, of course, the professors on the trip felt similarly about the Notre Dame students who traveled to the islands.
“The best part for me was seeing the look of awe and wonder on the faces of the students when they saw their first Galápagos tortoise, marine iguana, or blue-footed boobie. The incredible biology and geology that we witnessed firsthand was inspiring,” Lamberti said.
Even if you can’t go to the Galápagos, Chigozie has advice on how to “see” the world.
“I encourage you to appreciate the complexity of Earth,” she said.