Cheryl Moertel never planned to be a teacher. She began her career in cytogenetics and applied for a teaching job on a whim. “It was so much fun,” says Cheryl. “At first I thought I’d just do it for a few months … but what’s meant to be sometimes jumps out of the shadows and grabs you.”Eighteen years later, a biology and chemistry teacher at Century High School, Moertel’s innovative methods include teaching biology with the help of live animals—like her long-time pet parrot Ticket and a piranha named Fluffy—and taking students on field expeditions all over the world to experience science firsthand.
BEYOUND FOUR WALLS
Fifteen years ago, a colleague suggested Cheryl lead a student trip to MarineLab, a marine science facility in Key Largo, Fla., which offers students and teachers hands-on demonstrations and field observations of the marine ecosystem of the Florida Keys.While on the trip, Cheryl became hooked. “I got in the water [to snorkel] and I was terrified… and then, I opened my eyes, and it was beautiful,” she recalls. Cheryl later became certified in scuba diving and is now a dive master.Since that first trip, Cheryl has led approxi-mately 20 Century students each year on scientific studies around the world, teaching them biology, science and culture. They have trekked in the rainforests of Belize, snorkeled in the Caribbean, lived in a Mayan village and helped build a school in Ecuador. They have explored animal and plant life in Costa Rica, Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Australia, New Zealand, and the Galapagos Islands.Once while kayaking in Alaska, a group of students came across a humpback whale and calf. The calf played around the kayaks, coming close to students, blowing spray and looking at them with one big eye out of the water.“[The trips] make biology come alive,” says Cheryl. “You can’t teach it in four walls. It’s all-encompassing.”
“I learned so much more about the animals and plants that were there because I got to see them firsthand,” says recent Century graduate Jenifer Strehlo about the field expedition she joined. “We were taught about the native and invasive species of fish that surrounded the island that included nurse sharks, which we often saw along with stingrays, and once we even got to see three wild dolphins.”Bridget Owen, current Century student, recalls the Belize trip: “One of the most memorable things about the trip was meeting the people of Belize. … A man named Silvano … took us to his home, and he showed us the tropical plants he grew like cacao and sugarcane. His wife taught us how to turn it into chocolate and how to make tortillas. It really opened up our minds to how different life is in other places of the world.”The yearly excursions are more than just field observations; they also teach the students a great deal about themselves. “Scuba diving teaches girls they’re strong and healthy and they can do anything,” says Cheryl. “They’ve overcome this huge obstacle [scuba diving].” “All you can really say is, ‘amazing,’” says Miles Barnidge, another Century graduate and student explorer. “You can’t explain how you felt when you’re trekking through the jungle and going into caves or walking on the beach of an island 14 miles off the mainland. It was an experience that will live forever in my head.”
Alison Rentschler is a writer living in Rochester who would like to go to Belize someday.