John Merck
July 14, 2000



Firm plans

Beginnings: When I was hired by the University of Maryland in the Summer of 1999, my first duty was to help present an orientation to incoming College Park Scholars students about Scholars' new Earth, Life, and Time (ELT) program. Most of this time was spent listening to Thomas Holtz, the program director, hitting the obvious points. All was going smoothly when he let it drop that we would be making an excursion to the Galápagos Islands the following Summer. He followed up with a compelling description of how neat the islands were and what a fabulous educational destination they would be.

I gulped.

We had spoken previously of the possibility of taking such a trip. Now, suddenly, here was a public commitment. I knew nothing about the logistics of travel in the Galápagos, and had never taken a group of students out of state, much less abroad. The next day, I bought a Galápagos travel guide. Preparations had begun.

Basics: They began in earnest in late September. We had learned that one of our colleagues at UMD, Dr. Douglas Gill (a field biologist who shared our academic priorities), had led several Galápagos ecotours. Our meeting with him was an eye-opener. As former student-style travelers, we were disdainful of organized tours that, we felt, would deprive us of our autonomy and cater to our lowest intellectual common denominator. According to Gill, however, the tourist industry in the Galápagos was made to order for us. They catered entirely to well-educated, motivated amateurs with an intellectual interest in the archipelago's natural history - exactly like our prospective students. More importantly, the only legal means of access to the islands was as part of an organized tour. He suggested particularly rewarding sites in the islands, equipped us with the names of qualified travel agencies, and sent us on our way.

We soon established contact with one of these firms and were disturbed to learn that even though the proposed trip was nine months away, it was getting late to reserve a boat. We were still preoccupied with autonomy, so chartering, and completely occupying, an entire boat seemed crucial. We immediately reserved the only boat available, and airline tickets for the number of people needed to fill it. For the next few months, we would be preoccupied with recruiting precisely the right number of people to match these reservations.

It soon became apparent that we needed to emphasize the academic rigor of the experience. Several potential students had the same misgivings about organized tours that I did. Additionally, we encountered some administrators who were unfamiliar with the Gapápagos, and imagined that we were proposing some sort of beach junket on a South Pacific Island. We consequently decided to embed the trip in a three-credit course on the natural history of the islands, an arrangement would reward participants in proportion to the learning that we expected them to achieve. Thus "Field Studies II: The Natural History of the Galápagos Islands" came to be. Ultimately, the course was offered under the aegis of both the Geology Department (as GEOL388) and of College Park Scholars (as CPSP318G).

Firm plans: Although we originally envisioned running the trip and course independently from any other university office, our dealings with the university's Study Abroad office soon made it clear that there were many advantages to operating under their aegis. These included:

  • access to economies of scale through dealings with travel agencies with established relationships with the university. (We were darned lucky that the agency with which we had originally made arrangements was willing to wholesale to the university's "official" agency at no extra cost.)

  • Detailed knowledge of state and university procurement policies.

  • the ability uniformly to structure student fees regardless of their residence status.

  • access to Study Abroad's great accumulated travel knowledge and expertise

  • and frankly, the help of people who were willing to work full time to insure our success.

    The first lesson we learned was that, for all our enthusiastic canvassing of campus e-mail list servers, no PR method could beat the distribution of lots of colorful fliers. In fact, within a week of their distribution, we had all of the applicants we needed to fill our boat. Deposits and airline tickets were duly paid and the trip began to take on an air of concreteness that it had previously lacked. By now it was Spring Break. Holtz and I, all unsuspecting, departed with an unrelated group of students and faculty for a natural history tour of Arizona.

    Snafu: The second thing we learned from Study Abroad was not to take anything for granted. During our Spring Break absence, they had turned up an interesting datum. Although the Ecuadorian government had recently enacted legislation that would require Galápagos tour vessels to obtain international (ISM) seaworthiness certification by July of 2000, there was no current guarantee that any vessel was so certified. After making some inquiries it was learned that our boat had applied for certification but been turned down for trivial deficiencies that they were now working to remedy.

    Adding some color to the issue was another new fact: Four years earlier, a tour vessel portentiously named the Moby Dick had sunk and some passengers had drowned. An uncertified vessel obviously would not do. Thus, while we had been hiking around Arizona, Study Abroad had been searching frenziedly for another vessel to use. The result was our switch to the M/V Corinthian, a fully certified former research trawler transformed into a passenger vessel accommodating up to 45 guests. We would not have the boat to ourselves, and we would have to change our itinerary slightly, but, secure in the knowledge that we were safe, we could at least proceed. We timorously broadcast a bulletin to our applicants informing them of the change, fully expecting to lose a few. To our grateful surprise, we lost no one and gained a new passenger who had been unable to travel during our previous dates.

    Orientations: By late April, everything was set from a contractual standpoint. To prepare students for the actual travel experience, we scheduled a series of three orientations.

  • Orientation 1 was a general introduction to the trip and accompanying course. This largely boiled down to lists of advice: We also got information about students' dietary and medical needs.

  • Orientation 2 addressed the academic side of the trip. Each student was assigned a research topic which would ultimately be written up into a review paper like web page. We feel strongly that students put enough hard work into survey and review-type research assignments that they should not be allowed to lie, unread, in their desk drawers forever after they are graded and handed back. By organizing students' work into a web site, we hoped that their work would continue to be useful to K-12 educators and others interested in the Galápagos. Students would research their topics during the trip and after our return to Maryland. Students were advised of appropriate research methods and given a "search image" for what their final write up should look like, and at what level it should be pitched. To see their results, check out our "research" section.

  • At orientation 3 we went down a final check list to verify that everyone did, indeed, have their passports, immunizations, and essential items in line. Airline tickets and emergency medical insurance IDs were handed out, and we agreed upon when and where to meet at the airport: 10:30, Continental Airlines International Departure Desk.

    Day 1 - Departure
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