By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Laura Williams watches as student Ismael Mendoza finds a place for a hammerhead shark on the display board.
When Laura Williams applied for a fellowship with the Earthwatch Institute to study the coastal ecology of coral reefs in the Bahamas this summer, she never dreamed she would be selected. “My students heard me screaming when I found out I was a finalist. They can’t wait to hear about the things I will learn.”
The special education teacher at University Heights Middle School describes herself as “beyond excited” as she plans for the upcoming 12-day trip to Nassau, where she will study plant communities and the impact of humans on the fragile coastline. Most of the time, she and fellow teachers and researchers will be snorkeling.
Williams, who works part-time as a photographer with her sister, has volunteered to take underwater photos. Research will focus on seeking solutions to impacts on species such as turtles, manatees, dolphins, whales, sharks and seabirds.
“They told me I should be comfortable in 15 feet of water for up to three hours at a time,” says the Riverside City Teachers Association member. Williams believes that her students will benefit vicariously from her fellowship, which is funded by the Riverside Educational Enrichment Foundation.
“As a teacher of students with moderate to severe disabilities, any additional hands-on experiences and visuals that I can acquire to share with my students would be beneficial,” she says. “My students have a great interest in ocean life, and this is one of their favorite units of study each year. By adding personal experience in this field, I believe, it will increase their interest and desire to learn.”
She also believes it will inspire her students to venture out more in the world.
“The more I step out of my classroom and comfort zone, the more I can encourage my students to do the same — even though it’s on a smaller scale. The more teachers become involved in the community and the world, the more involved our students with disabilities will be, too.”