Science and conservation education in a Mexican Biosphere Reserve

In an effort to increase the practicality and relevance of school-based science, curriculum developers are turning to museums, parks, and zoos to offer students authentic learning opportunities tied to real-world contexts. These sites can help demonstrate the applicability of students’ learning, particularly when tied to school curriculum outcomes.

To better understand the educational work of these sites, Dr. Gabriela Alonso Yanez explored the science education program implemented in a Mexican outdoor science programme at Sierra de Huautla Biosphere Reserve. This Biosphere Reserve protects nearly 6,000 hectares of tropical dry forest, one of the largest remaining tracts in Mexico.

As environmental interest in the area grows, educational projects are also underway to help students explore this important ecosystem and its unique species. Dr. Alonso was particularly interested in how ideas of science and conservation were communicated to students and the general public through the programmes and documents produced by the various groups working within the Biosphere.

Deciding the Science

By investigating the social worlds tied to the Biosphere, Dr. Alonso was able take stock of the different individuals engaged in work with the park. Mapping their contributions also allowed her to investigate who among them had possibilities of decision-making, influence over knowledge production, and recognition of their expertise in developing the outreach resources. In particular, questions around what type of information was prioritized and how local perspectives were incorporated became insightful.

The definition of the ‘tropical dry forest’ was contested across researchers and community members. Within the academic community, bio-geographers and ecologists describe tropical dry forests not as homogeneous ecosystems with clear-cut, easily identifiable biological features but rather as a complex entanglement of biophysical features. For local inhabitants, the ecosystem was seen as a complex landscape, changing over the years due to farming and government initiatives. Some citizens commented about the new trees and plants that have been introduced by the government’s reforestation plan, and the effect this has on the land.

Despite the debate over the characterization of tropical dry forest, and the classification attempts by the scientific community and members of the local community, most outreach documents and educational materials summed up a simple, standardized description; one which did not address the social, political, or geographic changes occurring in the region. The definition also relied solely on scientific information, further excluding the perspectives of the residents.

Though promoted as a central aspect of the Biosphere’s work in official documents, this lack of active local input and involvement was seen consistently. Local inhabitants worked with members of the research centre to varying degrees, often as guides for field trips and research assistants identifying local plants and animals, yet their culturally relevant knowledge was not reflected in the materials or programmes. Only a small percentage of the documents acknowledged the collaboration of the local guides, included local names of plants and animals, or highlighted local ways of living off and using the land.

Whose voice?

As scientists and government employees have greater access and control of the resources connected to the Biosphere, it is unsurprising that their voice and perspective dominates the materials showcasing the park. As local residents are unable to access these same resources or funding opportunities, especially as many do not own computers, their ability to collaborate equally is constrained. So long as these barriers remain unaddressed, a truly collective initiative will be difficult to achieve, leaving the curriculum focused on one perspective.

The materials and programmes also presented science knowledge as final, rather than acknowledging the ongoing inquiry and learning that is central to the discipline. This may also influence how students understand and engage with science. These materials should also show the social, political, and other influences that affect science production. Especially when considering local education, situating science in its larger context better connects it to the real world.

See more from Dr. Gabriela Alonso-Yanez on her profile

Connected Citations

Alonso-Yanez, G. (2018). Exploring Curriculum for Science Education: Lessons from a Mexican Biosphere Reserve. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 11(2), 89-101.

Alonso-Yanez, G., Thumlert, K., & de Castell, S. (2016). Re-mapping Integrative Conservation: (Dis)Coordinate Participation in a Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. Conservation and Society, 14(2), 13-20.