I just returned to Dar es Salaam from our school’s Extended Studies Program (ESP) – a “week without walls” – in Amani Nature Reserve of the East Usambara Mountains of Tanzania. The 8th-grade students who accompanied me got to experience one of my favorite parts of this country, a location rich with endemic plant and reptile species, as well as a climate and geography radically different from the hot, steamy coastal zone where we live.
During our time in Amani, we encountered quite a few unique creatures and plants, including forest cobras, Fischer’s chameleon, the Usambara 3-horned chameleon, pygmy chameleons, black-and-white colobus monkeys, 20 species of African violets, army ants, the pregnancy-test frog (really!), tree frogs, colossus crickets, swallowtail butterflies, forest moths, damselflies and dragonflies, trumpeting hornbills, the African fever-tree, and a lot more tree species than I can possibly remember. We also studied craters on the moon and watched Jupiter and its 4 Galilean moons climb across the night sky while we were in camp.
Apart from my personal interest in biodiversity, mountains, astronomy, and forests, there is real value in taking students ‘out there’ to see and experience a part of the world they might not otherwise visit. These kids live fairly posh lifestyles here in Dar, and putting them in tents for a week really stretches some of them. They develop a greater appreciation for the ease and comfort of home, and they confront – briefly – firsthand the challenges of living off the land in tropical Africa.
They also get to do things we can’t do in a classroom: feel the way a chameleon grips your skin as it climbs up your arm, observe the dark bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere, try to decipher the code of flashing firefly lights in pitch darkness, listen to owls call across a primary forest, chase frogs as they try to escape into chilly ponds and streams, and feel the microclimate changes in light, temperature, and humidity between tropical forest and farmland. Adding these first-hand sensory inputs reinforces classroom lessons and clarifies what may be highly abstract concepts for a lot of students who spend most of their days indoors. Plus, they’re just plain fun most of the time (apart from the army ants).