Studying Kenya – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Studying Kenya

Earlier this year, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in a joint venture with Cornell University, were awarded $1.4 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund a new environmental education project called Crossing Boundaries.

Now, on top of that-the largest single grant ever awarded to an HWS faculty member-the principal investigators of the Crossing Boundaries project have received a grant supplement allowing them to travel not only to Mexico and Brazil, the destinations specified in the original grant, but to Kenya as well. 

The NSF recently awarded Jim MaKinster, associate professor of education, and Nancy Trautmann, director of education at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, an additional $19,500 to develop a collaborative relationships with at least three organizations in Kenya, the Green Belt Movement, founded by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai Sc.D.’94, P’94, P’96, the Mpala Research Centre, and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Maathai, who spoke at the Smith Opera House last April, is an international authority on sustainable development, human rights and activism.  Through the Green Belt Movement, a nonprofit organization established to remediate “the reckless and unsustainable exploitation, occupation, and degradation of Kenya’s forests, rivers and wetlands,” Maathai has worked to organize women’s groups to plant trees, conserve the environment and empower themselves by improving their quality of life. She helped plant more than 30 million trees on farms as well as in school and church compounds across Kenya. Similar initiatives have been launched in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe among other places.

“The whole concept of the original grant grew out of a speech Wangari gave at a conference Nancy attended,” says MaKinster.  “Nancy was inspired by the presentation and became interested in engaging school students in ways that help them to understand international environmental issues.  We initially had to pull traveling to Kenya from the proposal because of the political unrest that erupted after the 2007 presidential election.  But luckily, things seemed to have calmed down.”

“We’re excited to go to Kenya because their environmental issues highlight the complexity of not only the scientific issues but the economic, political and social issues, which are all tightly wrapped up in sustainability,” MaKinster says.  “That’s really why we gravitated toward the Green Belt Movement.  They work with individuals and the local community and then move outward from there.”

The Crossing Boundaries program will span three years and provide middle and high school students with real-time information, technical competence, motivation, and the vision to use information and communications technologies (ICT) in addressing biodiversity conservation issues in regional and global contexts.

The project — funded through the NSF’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program — will utilize geospatial technology to analyze tropical rainforest conservation efforts in the Brazilian Amazon; the restoration of critical wildlife habitats in Chiapas, Mexico; and to develop a partnerships of mutual benefit to the Crossing Boundaries project, U.S. secondary schools, and professionals engaged in biodiversity conservations in Kenya.

Geographic information technologies (GIT) enable the capture and analysis of geographic data. Examples of GIT data include the measure of precipitation levels, ground temperature, tree canopy density, crop coverage, fault lines, soil moisture, animal habitats, and flood zones.  GIT can also be used to create complex maps as well as dynamic maps of renewable energy resources (e.g. wind, solar, geothermal, biomass).

MaKinster is excited by the full range of potential outcomes: “Our students need to develop awareness of the global interdependence of today’s world and also need opportunities to develop teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills that can be used effectively within a 21st century workforce.”

Crossing Boundaries has several components. One or two current Hobart or William Smith students will participate each year in 10-week summer internships in Mexico and Kenya. They will share their ideas, thoughts, and experiences via web-based technologies with middle and high school students in the U.S.  These secondary students will then collaborate with their peers to produce wiki reports on what they’ve learned, create podcast presentations, and/or exchange web-mediated peer reviews. 

Courtney Wilson ’08 was funded by MaKinster and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Eugenio Arima, another principal investigator, as the first Crossing Boundaries intern in Brazil. She worked at IMAZON, a non-profit organization promoting sustainable development in the Amazon rainforest. Her project entailed using GIT to identify locations suitable for reforestation projects. 

Currently developing middle and high school science curricula for Crossing Boundaries as the Curriculum Development Specialist for Crossing Boundaries at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Wilson will join MaKinster and Trautmann, as well as Michelle Watkins from Beaver River Central School and Scott Krebekks from Honeoye Falls-Lima Middle School, on the trip to Kenya.

Next summer, Mike Ellis ’10 will have the opportunity to intern for 10 weeks with the Mpala Wildlife Foundation, which operates and manages a modern biodiversity conservation research center, a 48,000 acre wildlife conservancy and a variety of community health and outreach programs in Laikipia, Kenya.

Crossing Boundaries will also afford secondary students extra educational opportunities, enhancing their learning through video and web-based communications with scientists and conservation professionals from around the globe. This will allow students to see scientific and environmental careers in action and see the broad spectrum of industries-such as civil engineering, education, consulting, environmental conservation, meteorology, and many others-that utilize information technologies and geospatial information technologies in their everyday work.

The grant project’s staff and collaborators are hopeful that exposure to these opportunities and exciting technologies will motivate students to be more proactive in exploring the sciences when considering college majors and future career paths. 

Each year, to support all of these activities, 20 secondary science teachers are provided with year-long professional development opportunities. These efforts include a summer institute, five Saturday workshops throughout the academic year, and ongoing personal and electronic support. All of these experiences will help participating teachers develop information and communication technology skills as well as curricular plans for their classrooms. Teachers will be instructed in biodiversity science, conservation issues, geospatial technologies, and a variety of technology-rich pedagogical strategies.


In the photo above is the team of teachers from the summer 2009.