Saving the Turtles! My authentic STEM experience in San Pancho, Mexico

I’ve just returned from one of the most rewarding vacations I’ve had in years; our family of five spent two weeks in a town just north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, San Francisco de Nayarit, though most people call it San Pancho. The town is very small (pop. 1000) with very few of the luxuries that we enjoy in the US, which was one of the reasons I chose for the family to stay for so long. (I’ve posted about the experience as a whole at my personal blog, The Mommy Rush, if you are interested; we all learned so much about what we take for granted in our everyday lives that I am devoting a whole post to just that topic).

But the real reason I chose San Pancho as the location for this vacation was …. The Turtles. San Pancho is home to one of several conservation efforts to save endangered or threatened species of sea turtles, from the various threats to their survival. Grupo Ecologico de Costa Verde’s Project Tortuga focuses on saving the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles, one of the smaller species of sea turtles (small is relative: an adult can grow to 2.5 feet and weigh more than 100 lbs). However, the town is in one of only a few regions in the world, known to have living Leatherback Sea Turtles, the largest species (adults can be as large as 7 ft long and weigh over 2,000 lbs) and also the most critically endangered of all sea turtles; the most recent estimates say that there are less than 38,000 currently in our oceans. Sadly, we did not have any encounters with any Leatherbacks, we did meet several nesting Olive Ridleys as we patrolled the beach in San Pancho every night for almost 2 weeks.

Most sea turtles spend most of their life in the ocean, except for the 3 times a year they come ashore to lay eggs. They do not reach maturity until they are 14 years old, but once they do, they lay 3 nests of eggs (between 60 -150 eggs) every year for the rest of their lives. They can live up to 80 years, though the average lifespan is about 45-50 years. With 30 years of fertility, and up to 300 eggs per year, it would seem that there would be no shortage of turtles in the world. It is unfortunate that these amazing creatures face a challenge just getting from egg to sea, but as small as they are, they are easy prey for marine predators, as well as for the most dangerous predators – humans. If the turtle nests aren’t poached for food from the beaches, and the babies make it to sea, they will face the danger of fishing nets and traps, that could end their life before they reach adulthood. Project Tortuga, in San Pancho focuses its efforts on transporting the nests for incubation and releasing the baby turtles to sea when they hatch. Our trip to San Pancho was during the middle of the nesting season but just before the first nests began to hatch. In fact, we missed the first batch of hatchlings by only one day; 36 little turtles entered the world on Sunday morning (7 August).

The experience we had with the Turtle Project was an amazing real-world example of STEM at work; a global problem being addressed on a local scale, using science, technology, engineering and math, to replicate the natural incubation process of the Olive Ridley turtles. The process began even before we hit the beach, because before a nest could be packed for incubation, the sand had to be prepared with just the right amount of moisture. Once the sand was prepared, the nest, made out of styrofoam coolers was packed with just the right volume of sand before any eggs were placed inside. The fun part was always heading out to the beach on the ruggedized dunebuggy to patrol the beach for turtles or turtle tracks which would indicate a nest, or turtle laying a nest, was nearby.

When we first arrived in San Pancho, the plan was for my oldest son and I to volunteer with the project because the shifts began each night at 10pm and continued through the night until sun-up, about 6am. Because he is in high school, I felt he was old enough to stay up through the first shift (10am – 2am), and we had arranged for he and I to work that part of the night. However, once my 7 year old found out about the dune-buggy and heard about the possibility of actually seeing a turtle, there was no escaping the constant insistence that he HAD to participate. So on night #2, the three of us worked the first shift, and little did I know, that this little guy would be so engaged with the whole process that the turtles became HIS MISSION. Ask him anything about turtles and he will tell you. This just solidified my belief that the best way for kids (and their teachers) to learn is through experience. My rising 3rd grader can now spot a turtle track from a distance of ~50m (in the dark of night), dig up a nest, and prepare and pack a nest at the right temperature with the right volume of sand. He even did the math for how to arrange the eggs in the nests. Because the eggs need to be arranged uniformly, in honeycomb pattern, in equal amounts across 3 layers, there were some calculations that needed to be made before the first egg could be placed.

I’ll be honest, the whole experience was amazing, and by the last night, when we found our 14th turtle, I was just as fascinated as I was the first night. But, the work was not easy, with thunder and lightning a regular occurrence and the hot, humid climate something I was not accustomed to. By the time we left, I was exhausted! The boys, however could continue indefinitely, I’m sure, and they will have some wonderful stories to tell in their essay about “What I did over the summer”, when they return to school.

I was so impacted by this experience, that I feel a certain connection to not only the organization but also to all the scientists, engineers, and naturalists who work on local projects that solve a global problem. I am toying with the idea of returning to San Pancho, very soon, if only to volunteer with the release efforts of this season. But I would only do so with some willing travel mates. So if you are a teacher, scientist, or just interested in an amazing trip to participate in real-world science, let me know in the comments section below. I also have several stickers from Project Tortuga that I’ll send to anyone to indicates interest in the comment section or on the Portland Wiz Kid facebook page (I’ll email you privately to request your mailing address).

Because I have access to some wonderful lesson creation tools at, I am developing a unit of STEM curriculum based on this experience, and will let you all know once it is complete and available. I am certain that this is only the first of many real-world STEM adventures I will have because it had such an impact on me and my mission to recruit more STEM problem-solvers!

This entry was published on August 9, 2011 at 9:13 pm and is filed under Engineering Education, Math Education, Project Based Learning, STEM Education. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Saving the Turtles! My authentic STEM experience in San Pancho, Mexico

  1. Pingback: Enrich, Design, Engage, and Integrate: 4 (more) Keys to Education Reform through STEM | Educate to Innovate with STEM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: