By Louis Mayeux
Mount Vernon Presbyterian School science teacher Mary Cantwell, like many educators, enhanced her skills this past summer.
She followed a different path, however, by working in Ecuador’s cloud forest high in the Andes Mountains.
After two weeks as a volunteer at the primitive La Hesperia biological station, where she milked cows, tilled an organic garden, nursed trees and helped set up a classroom for Indian children, she traveled to the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast. At the islands, she swam with white-tipped sharks, sea lions and turtles, and explored the islands’ volcanic landscape.
Cantwell was one of six teachers to receive a Mount Vernon Fellowship, a grant program for faculty members established last year by Head of School Brett Jacobsen.
“Without the fellowship, I wouldn’t have been able to go,” Cantwell said. “It totally opened my eyes in terms of the world and all of the riches it has.”
Cantwell, coordinator of Mount Vernon’s Center for Design Thinking, a system of problem-solving, and science coordinator and lab instructor for kindergarten through sixth grade, said her Ecuador journey has enriched her lab projects, in which students explore school grounds to observe patterns of nature and collect root samples.
“I would love students to be outside more, out in nature and the surrounding environment. My experience encouraged me to be more hands-on, and let the students lead in their leaning with imagination and curiosity.”
Cantwell, a Sandy Springs resident, traveled with her 16-year-old niece, Grace Starling of Grayson. They worked at the 2,000-acre La Hesperia compound along with volunteers from around the world. The organization is dedicated to ending deforestation and restoring the evergreen moist forest, located in a region with a seasonal low-level cloud cover.
As with the Amazonian rain forest, the cloud forest is threatened by native people cutting down trees for agricultural purposes such as cattle grazing.
“La Hesperia is trying to preserve the biodiversity of the cloud forest and also trying to protect the local watershed,” she said. “Its eventual goal, with which it’s not completely successful, is to integrate the farming and agricultural processes to complement the natural forest, to get the locals to see that you can do them both.”
The Galapagos Islands was a special experience.
“All of the animals and sea creatures come right up to you and don’t get spooked at all,” Cantwell said. “I went snorkeling with white-tipped sharks, and there were no problems, ever. The sea turtles and sea lions were going through my legs, swirling all around me. Not once did they seem afraid or make me scared. The wonders of the Galapagos, the true beauty, is that you’re able to see these things up close.’
On the islands’ Mars-like landscape, she also came close to giant Galapagos tortoises. “To see these huge creatures that have been around for so many years is an unbelievable experience, more than you could get from a book or web page.”