by David Joneschild ’90, Upper School science teacher
David Joneschild ’90 was one of four Lakeside teachers who went on a two-week GSL experience this past summer in South Africa. Here, he shares some thoughts about what he learned.
Experiential education immerses a student in the topic they are studying, adding dimensions and context that makes learning more meaningful. As a teacher of an upper-level ecology elective that has a three-week Global Service Learning (GSL) component, I get to witness how students benefit from encountering in real life the animals and plants we’ve been studying at a distance. I also watch their personal growth as they navigate cultural differences and learn how to communicate and work with people from other cultures. These are powerful, transformative experiences. So I jumped at the opportunity to participate in the faculty GSL program to South Africa. Instead of being the guide, I got to be a student. I immersed myself both in the ecology of South Africa – a country I had never visited before – as well as a culture that is different from mine. My guides through South Africa provided for me what I aim to offer my students, and they helped shape the way I experienced my journey.
Shortly after arriving in South Africa, we ventured to the Leshiba Wilderness Reserve. Driving the rugged road into the mountains, I took in all I could of the landscape. Valleys extended out below us as we headed toward the peaks in the distance. Cresting a ridge, the grasslands opened before us. I found myself getting lost in the expansive horizon, searching for the iconic animals I wanted to see and, if possible, to photograph as a keepsake.
A walk through the wilderness reserve the following day gave me a chance to slow down and take a more meditative approach to the exploration. The accelerated pace of our lives tends not to permit space for reflection and wonder. Walking with a local naturalist allowed us to stop periodically and gain insights as he pointed out what we might otherwise have missed. Inevitably, something he mentioned would pique our curiosity and we would probe deeper with questions.
Searching for a rhino, it would have never occurred to me to care about the dung piles they leave behind. In the company of an expert naturalist, we learned the importance of their excrement. Dung creates habitat for dung beetles. The rhino uses it for its own purposes, too. Males smear their own dung on their feet to mark territory as they walk around. As the rhino moves through the ecosystem, its grazing creates habitat for other species. By selectively browsing certain plants, rhinos create space for the growth of species of grasses preferred by other herbivores. Doing their thing, rhinos shape the environment for the other species that live there.
As our walk continued, I was repeatedly astonished by additional bits of information about species I thought I knew well. For example, during the rutting season, the neck skin of male impalas thickens, reducing the risk of puncture by a competitor’s horn during battles for access to mates. Coming into a clearing, we saw a herd of giraffes and the naturalist explained the evolutionary benefit of their coat pattern. The light and dark areas create blood circulation patterns that help with cooling in the intense sun of the savanna. This walk reinforced for me the power of experiential education. Paying close attention and immersing yourself in an experience – whether in the company of an expert or just with your own deep curiosity – allows you to come to new understandings and feel a sense of wonder. And it can go beyond the iconic species we imagine when we think about the savannas of Africa.
Our group became fascinated by a plant of quite unremarkable appearance when we learned of the chemical defenses it employs. As herbivores move through these grasslands, they feed on the leaves of buffalo thorn tree. The damaged plants then start to produce toxic tannins that appear in the remaining leaves within 15 minutes. These tannins – which cause liver damage in animals – also change the taste of the leaves. The browser tastes this chemical toxin and moves on to other plants. The damaged plants also begin emitting ethylene compounds that signal to nearby buffalo thorn trees that browsing is taking place. Neighboring plants not yet damaged then start producing the toxic tannins themselves. In a complementary twist, browsers have evolved to move upwind to continue their eating.
The four teachers, along with Director of Global Education Charlotte Blessing, in a baobob tree.
This two-hour walk at the beginning of our time in South Africa reminded me to take the time to observe, be curious, and to ask questions of experts when in their company but know there are answers out there to be uncovered with research. Most of all, I learned to be open to the unexpected.
This stood me in good stead when, nearing the end of our trip, we visited Kruger National Park unaccompanied by a guide. Driving through, we noticed a young animal alone at the side of the road. It seemed too young to survive on its own. Immediately, I thought this animal had been abandoned by its mother. Alone under the blazing sun, it would not survive for long. Given its fur pattern and general shape, I suspected the animal was a wild dog or a type of hyena. I snapped a few photos to make sure I could examine its characteristics and compare/contrast them with the field guide we had brought along. As I sleuthed through the field guide, I determined we had seen a young spotted hyena. Reading further, it stated that they leave their mom at the age six weeks and venture out on their own. That abandonment and certain death I had imagined was just this pup’s early foray into independence. It highlighted for me how dangerous it can be to put too much credence in initial assumptions. Just as I tell my students: Be curious and probe deeper rather than being quick to reach conclusions.