2011 Eleanor Venture Recipient: Scott Brungardt

Destination: Central America

The Board of Directors of the Education Foundation for the St. Vrain Valley is very pleased to announce that Mr. Scott Brungardt, biology teacher at Erie High School, has been selected as the 2011 Eleanor Venture grant recipient. Scott has been awarded $3,200 to travel to Central America in June, specifically Belize and Guatemala, to study both the ecology and culture of the region. His studies will include “exploring the vibrant world of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the terrestrial ecosystems and rainforests of Belize and Guatemala, and the extravagant architecture, rituals and games of the ancient Mayan culture.” These explorations will strengthen his ability to develop standards-based life science curriculum steeped in real-world experiences.

Scott teaches biology at Erie High School. He traveled to Belize and Guatemala to explore the vibrant world of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the terrestrial ecosystems and rainforests of Belize and Guatemala, and the extravagant architecture, rituals and games of the ancient Mayan culture. Now back in the classroom, he will assist his students develop a clearer understanding of such concepts as the flow of matter and energy through an ecosystem, natural selection, photosynthesis and cellular respiration, and interdependence between various life forms. Scott will be able to bring these heady subjects to life for his students using the first-hand knowledge received during his trip.

Below is Scott’s personal account of his adventure:


2011 TEV Recipient Brungardt_3-21-11_smallThe opportunity afforded to me by the Eleanor Venture Grant allowed me to experience Central America as part of a course offered through the Colorado School of Mines Teacher Enhancement Program. I spent 10 days with a group of 27 educators exploring the vibrant world of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, terrestrial ecosystems and rainforests of Belize and Guatemala, and the extravagant architecture, rituals, and games of the ancient Mayan culture. As a teaching professional, I constantly seek ways to energize my own passion for learning and share with students my renewed amazement of our natural world. The education I received during this incredible trip ultimately enriched my instructional expertise and expanded curriculum opportunities available to students at Erie High School.

After a day of travel, we arrived in Caye Caulker, Belize, home of the Caye Caulker Forest Marine Reserve. Our learning included research on biodiversity of this beautiful Caribbean barrier reef and exploration of the geology of reefs and their critical contributions to marine ecosystems. We tooka short boat ride out to the reef for a two-tank scuba diving expedition to Caye Chapel Reef and the Tunnels dive sites on the first day. Upon completion of our research dives, we enjoyed the sea breeze, views of the Caribbean Sea, and local cuisine. After exploring town a bit, which consists of three dirt streets (i.e., Front, Middle, and Back St.), we returned to the motel to look through pictures and recall the diving adventures in order to classify the flora and fauna of the Mesoamerican reef system we had seen.

On the second day we took two different dives, the first at Esmeralda and the second in Cypress Tunnels. Both were located 15 miles to the north near Ambergris Caye. This day of diving was much better than the day before in terms of multilevel variation and animal life. We saw a 5 to 7 foot green moray eel upon descending to the bottom on the first dive, and were soon greeted by

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nurse sharks and black grouper. During the second dive, we saw a giant channel crab at the entrance of the 20-meter swim through at a depth of approximately 80 feet. We also saw loggerhead and green sea turtles; they were so beautiful and such graceful swimmers.

 

Our final day of diving took us southwest past Turneffe on a very rough, two-hour boat ride toward the beautiful Great Blue Hole, to which Jacque Cousteau dynamited a second entrance because his research yacht would not fit through the natural reef channel that provided access to the interior of the atoll. As we descended to 150 feet in the hole, we encountered a thermocline at 30 feet, the first shelf at about 90 feet, and a lionfish on a stalactite at about 110 feet. We swam through the amazingly huge stalactites, which can only form when the area is not submerged by water. After shooting some video during the very short bottom time of eight minutes, we began our ascent to the surface. A dozen Caribbean reef sharks, which can be aggressive toward divers, began circling above us. It was very cool and a nice way to get our heart-rates up without the aid of caffeine. Once above the thermocline again, we explored the top of the atoll reef. I spotted a beautiful midnight parrot fish approximately two feet in length, and was lucky enough to get some pictures. We headed to Half Moon Caye National Monument Reserve for our surface interval, and then dove the Half Moon Caye Wall. This dive was the most fabulous of all. At a depth of approximately 83 feet for 47 minutes, I was blessed with an amazing array of aquatic flora and fauna. I was even able to swim alongside a loggerhead turtle for approximately three minutes, and capture some of it on video! I also saw an eagle ray with a wing-span of 3½ feet and a tail approximately 12 feet long. Wow! I saw numerous, very large black and Nassau grouper, a jewfish or two, and huge barrel sponges, which is only possible because a hurricane has never destroyed this reef. The caye was amazing as well, comfortable temperatures and cool breezes allowed me to enjoy 360-degree views of the Caribbean and the beach covered in corals, fans, and conch shells. While following a nature trail along the east coastline of this national monument I saw lizards, the gumbo limbo tree with cool-to-the-touch red bark full of sunburn prevention/healing chemicals, the red footed boobies actively nesting from an observation deck, and much more. These birds were truly amazing with their pale blue bills and red, webbed feet that were flexible enough to wrap around the branches to which they clang. All too soon, we headed off to our third dive at Long Caye Aquarium. This dive’s highlights include spotting a queen triggerfish, a spiny lobster in a huge, misshapen barrel sponge, and hundreds of Margate and sergeant majors fish. After yet another great dive, we began the long journey back to Caye Caulker to review the day and classify our newly observed species. This day was exhausting, but an awesome adventure and learning experience.

We traveled by water-taxi back to the mainland Tuesday morning after finding a great authentic bakery for a morning pastry and cup of coffee. We were treated to the varied cultures of the Belizean people, who can claim ancestors of the Mayas, Creoles, Spanish, British, and Mestizo. The World Wildlife Fund partnered with local Creole landowners to save the declining populations of howler monkeys in one of the most successful conservation and ecotourism projects in Belize. So we loaded into three 15-passenger vans and headed off to the Community Baboon Sanctuary.

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We were treated to a great educational experience with Robert as our guide. He was able to explain many local plants and their corresponding medicinal purposes because he had worked with the local plant ecologist in previous years. We saw plant leaves that curled up instantly upon being touched, a yellow-flowered plant used as the first natural pregnancy test, Mahogany trees, Cohune trees, and more. We observed the black howler monkeys, and I was treated to one of the babies almost kissing the lens of my video camera as he climbed head-first down the tree to play with the red indicator light. It was very exciting! We then traveled by van to Altun Ha, the first of our Maya ruins. The engineering was amazing, and so were the mosquitoes. After buying a hand-carved wooden sea turtle made of local Zericote wood, we headed to Orange Walk, which is a town about 1½ hours northwest of Belize City.

 

The following morning we took a riverboat up the New River toward Lamanai with Alberto and his nephew as our guides. While traveling up the river, which is the only river in Belize that flows south to north, we saw insect bats lined up on the underside of trees. These bats sleep in lines by day, but prey on mosquitoes at dawn and dusk. We visited the sugar cane factory and saw the barges used to transport sugarcane to the Caribbean Sea. One of two species of freshwater crocodiles that live in the New River displayed itself nicely on a nearby log. After passing by a rum plant that uses molasses, the byproduct of sugarcane manufacturing, we came upon a Mennonite village with animals and horse drawn buggies. This village represented one of three Mennonite sects in the country of Belize. Just a few minutes up the river, a spider monkey jumped right into our boat. It was amazing to feel the friction pads on the hands, feet, and underside of its tail. Its pads reminded me of the tacky feel of football gloves, but are very cushioned like our hands and feet. In addition to its prehensile tail, this new world monkey also stood very erect. After we began to feed the monkey, she reached into my open backpack and pulled out my bag of powder buns, the local Creole raisin biscuits, which I had purchased the night before for my daily lunch. After a bit of tug-of-war with the monkey, she began to “scream” at me, and then tore the bag open from her side. I decided it would be best to let the monkey have the buns. She scampered off the boat and up the tree to share them with her male companion who was too afraid to climb aboard our boat to fend for himself. We saw Jesus Christ Birds walking on top of the water lilies and snake cacti wrapped around the trees on the river’s banks.

As we approached the ruins of Lamanai, the New River widened to about one mile and we were able to see the great temple rising to a height of 33 meters up through the jungle canopy. We were treated to a great history lesson by Roberto, and then began touring the ruins. On our way we observed many plants, such as the smelly toe that children fight over because it tastes like chocolate, honey-flavored plants used for treating infants suffering from diarrhea, and cancer-treating and snake-bite-remedying tree barks. We also saw black howler monkeys among the massive palms. There are 21 monkey troops in the Lamanai region, and this troop, which included six monkeys that we were able to spot, began generating their famous sound to ward off an approaching troop from the north. These monkeys are very territorial, and I remember being quite impressed with how terrifying the sound would be if I was not with a guide explaining this behavior and assuring me I was safe. We climbed all the temples, the ball court, and the royal residence. These structures are some of the few that are excavated out of the 817 total structures believed to be at Lamanai, which was settled over 3000 years ago. We also saw the official bird of Belize, the Toucan, high in the rainforest canopy, and lizards rustling through the understory. Before leaving, I found in a local artisans shop a necklace made of BC and AD jade collected from the Lamanai grounds. After a one hour ride back along the 36 miles of river, we jumped into our vans and headed southwest to Clarissa Falls near the boarder of Guatemala. This is where we spent the night.

We went to the local farmers market in San Ignacio on Thursday morning to experience the local tradition. I stumbled across a sour sop and craboo, both indigenous fruits, ice cream cone. It was interesting and very tasty. We then went to Barton Creek Caves, and canoed 1½ miles into the cave with David, our Creole guide who was a great storyteller and had crazy dreadlocks. The cave’s fresh water was approximately 15 feet deep and consisted of water that percolated through the forest floor from above and a spring buried deep within the mountain. Although we needed to lie flat in the canoe at times to squeeze through low passageways, the ceiling exceeded 100 feet in height in places, and was covered in beautiful stalactites. There were also many stalagmites and columns, which are adjoined stalactites and stalagmites. These geologic features, which grow at a rate of only one millimeter per year, are formed as minerals are deposited by the water dripping from/onto the tip of the structures. The cave also had skeletal remains and pottery since it was a sacred burial ground. As a sacred “underworld” for the Mayans, this cave served as a connection to

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the one of the gods, which was called Shebalba. If it were discovered that one snuck into this underworld, he would be punished by a cutting to the underside of the tongue, which led to bleeding to death. We then took a 4-wheel drive road to Big Rock Waterfall where we hiked about a mile, sat under the falling water of the 60-foot waterfall, and swam in the natural pool at the base of the falls. This was truly an oasis in the jungle. It was extremely refreshing.

 

The next day we journeyed from Clarissa Falls in Belize across the border into Guatemala, where we checked into the Tikal Inn, which is just outside the entry of Tikal. We took a five-hour tour of the great Tikal ruins, one of the most impressive and famous Mayan ruins in the world. Although this city was abandoned about 1100 years ago, it was home to 100,000 people at one time and covered many square miles with temples as high as 70 meters. Here we saw ancient sacrificial alters, hieroglyphs, roads, reservoirs, masks, paintings, and much more. Our guide, whose father and eight uncles were all teachers, was excellent due to his 50% Mayan heritage. We again experienced spider monkeys, black howler monkeys, a coatimundi, one tarantula, crickets, birds, and more. I also saw an agouti rodent, or gibnut rodent as Belizeans call it, and four occelated turkeys. Rounding out the evening was a cultural music lesson with Alex on the Inn’s giant marimba.

I woke up to the jungle birds singing at 5:15am on Saturday morning, and seized the peaceful moment to journal a bit. We then went on a 2300-meter zip line tour of the rainforest canopy. The tour consisted of nine platforms that allowed us to soar like birds for a little more than an hour. Going across the canopy head-first like Superman was very exhilarating.

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We packed up the vans and headed back to Clarissa Falls in Belize.

 

Leaving bright and early Sunday morning, our group caravanned from the western boarder of Belize back to Belize City, where we visited the Belize Zoo. The zoo was not extremely large; however, it had an abundance of elusive and fascinating wildlife of Central America, three species of which were the most memorable. The jaguar was very powerful, beautiful, and graceful. The Harpy Eagle had amazing feather patterns and generated a tremendous amount of air movement when it flew from one side of the enclosure to the other. And the scarlet macaw was very loud and extremely bright in color. After our visit, we enjoyed ice cream, Coca Light, and searching for souvenirs in the gift shop. We trekked the remaining 50 miles through the country back to the Belize International Airport to catch our flight home after a truly rich learning experience and many Creole, Maya, and local treasures, not to mention pictures and amazing memories to share with students.

To be selected as the winner of this terrific Eleanor Venture Grant was a gift of a lifetime. The unforgettable excursions in Central America provided me with an immense amount of real-world experience that is implementable in my classroom, and will allow me to positively impact SVVSD students’ learning for many years into the future.

Scott Brungardt
Erie High School