I just returned from a two day trip with the NIST school. I’m not sure what that stands for, but in short it’s an international school with a good mix of European, Thai, Korean, and other Asian students. Their English and behavior was much better than the last group (thank goodness!), and it’s nice to have the week broken up into two trips.
We do many, many activities with the kids while they’re on the barge. Most of the activities focus on ecological principles, such as watersheds, food webs, invasive species, macroinvertebrates, water use, pollution, etc. One of my favorites thus far is an “investigation” into the water hyacinth, which is an invasive water-lily type plant that grows in the Chao Phraya.
The plant was originally brought over from Brazil by one of the kings of Thailand, who happened to really like it. He originally only had it growing in the Grand Palace, but as the Chao Phraya happens to flood its banks every year, the plant eventually was washed out of the palace and into the main water body. Since then, it has spread rapidly, and exists all throughout the Chao Phraya watershed (which covers %35 of Thailand!). The plant doesn’t root to the bank of the river, but rather has large leaves that act as sails that push the plant wherever the water is deep enough to float. The stems are very similar to styrofoam in that the are light and filled with tiny air pockets. This allows the plant to float. The roots are especially interesting in that they act as filters to the water, and are perhaps the only reason that the plant is appreciated. Without these plants, the Chao Phraya would be much filthier than it already is, and Thailand would have a much bigger water contamination problem on its hands.
Anyway, we use the plant to teach students about macroinvertebrates (which live in the feathery roots), and about the plant itself. This is done by using story-telling and role play to help the kids figure out the story of the introduction of the water hyacinth to Thailand, and the features that make the plant successful in its environment. Then, we introduce the bugs! Most of the little girls are usually a little apprehensive about touching the invertebrates at first, but usually we can get everyone to participate by the end. We usually find a whole host of critters, which we then have the kids identify using a taxonomy key (I’m pretty sure I’ve taken a college course similar to this…). Afterward, we add up the point value that each species is worth, and then divide our total points by number of species. The resulting figure falls into a predetermined range that helps us determine how clean the water is. Depending on what we find, the water usually falls under the category of “not too bad” to “kinda bad” (in 5th-grader terms). Not great for the river, or the critters, but certainly a neat exercise.
After we’ve figured out the degree of water quality, we let the kids swim in the river. This activity is always unanimously everyone’s favorite. I don’t think many of these kids have ever swam in a river before, or tried canoeing. It’s fun for them, and hilarious for us. We let them jump off the front of the barge, and one of us swims around with them to monitor. Maura (the paid intern) and I swam with them on this trip, and I spent most of the time trying to convince kids that A.) there was nothing in the water that could hurt them (this is a lie. Remember the monitor lizard from my last post?), and B.) the water really isn’t that cold. In all fairness, it’s really not that cold to ME. To them, it might be a little chilly, especially since it’s the “cool” season right now. To me it feels like bathwater after you’ve let it sit for about 20 minutes, but regardless I try to keep the kids from getting chilled, falling off the ladder, or climbing all over me in an attempt to escape from “the icky things touching my feet!”.
Another really neat activity we do is let the kids shop for their own breakfast in a “fresh” market (i.e. open air market) on the last morning of their trip. In Thailand, waste is a HUGE problem. This may seem like an obvious point, but people really have no concept of where their trash goes after they throw it away (or on the ground, or in the river, or in the street, etc.). In the fresh markets, plastic bags are hugely overused, and paper products are pretty rare. On occasion you can get a product wrapped in paper or a banana leaf, but almost everything gets wrapped in plastic. This is hugely wasteful, since most plastic bags are tiny (for things like sides of chili, sugar, vinegar, etc.) and Thais aren’t in the practice of recycling.
Anyway, we challenge the kids to buy breakfast for their whole class (and us) without using ANY plastic bags. We give them bowls and cloth bags and send them out with around 150-200 baht (about $4.50 to $6) and an adult supervisor. Let me tell you now – shepherding 5-6 10 year olds around a crowded Thai market and being able to speak almost no Thai is a challenge at best. The kids don’t seem to have much spatial awareness, and are constantly in the way of other people. Thank goodness Thais find children so precious, and are so forgiving of their occasional errant behavior!
After the kids have spent their money and returned to the barge, we arrange all the food and the kids enjoy the fruits of their labor. Ironically, this usually involves very little fruit, as any 5th grade kid with free money just wants to buy sweets. Needless to say, breakfast usually ends up being like a trip to a pastry shop with the occasional chicken wing or bit of pork stuck in. After we eat, we show the kids how much money they’ve saved by eating from a fresh market rather than their normal supermarket breakfast. We can usually feed everyone for under 30 baht per person, where as the normal breakfast for most of these kids runs upwards of 200 baht per kid, per day (granted, these kids are usually pretty affluent). What a savings! We also demonstrate how many plastic bags they keep out of a landfill each week as a group by using bowls and cloth bags to shop. Again, the number is staggering. We usually tally up over 2000 (yes, thousand) bags that we save by shopping with reusable containers (I wasn’t exaggerating when I said Thais were fond of plastic bags). I had to do the math twice by myself the first time we did the exercise before I believed it. Certainly makes one wonder how much we would save in Alaska if we all shopped with cloth or bowls!
A brief note on markets:
Thai culture absolutely revolves around food, and fresh markets are an awesome place to see this. I use awesome in that you really are struck with awe. The amount of food, the variety, and (for me) the number of products I couldn’t even start to identify is simply breathtaking. Everything from water beetles to veggies to fruits to eggs to fish to amphibians…it’s all there.