FUJAIRAH // The children spilled out of seven Land Cruisers with a collective cry of "Wow!" that bounced off the wadi walls. Their first encounter with wildlife came as the children ate their lunch. A curious wasp set them shrieking. Later, they would come into close contact with snakes and toads.
In November, pupils from Raffles International School in Dubai had an environmental month. After raising money for a school recycling centre, they set a second target and raised Dh5,000 (US$1,300) for the Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS). The money was used to buy camera traps for Fujairah's nature reserve, Wadi Wurayah. As a thank-you, scientists volunteered to take 30 children from grades three to five to the wadi last week to show them what science is all about.
This hands-on learning gives students an unparalleled understanding of the environment that cannot be taught through the pages of a book. "They've got to get out there and get their hands wet," said Emma Smart, a conservation officer with the EWS. "You can spend days looking at books and pictures, but when you hold a net or touch a fish, that's when the learning really begins." "It's really important to get the kids to actually do the fund-raising and see where the money's going," said Peter Milne, the grade three teacher who organised the project. "They start with the fund-raising, then they see a purpose. They see the results."
Pupils are reporting back to their classmates on what they saw and learnt. "They have a role now as ambassadors," Mr Milne said. "They represent that wadi." While these experiences are invaluable, they take tremendous effort and planning on the teacher's part, he said. "Some schools which are really active rely on one or two people who have a passion for it." When these teachers leave, it can mean that important contacts are lost. To this end, Raffles International School has created a full-time position of environment education co-ordinator who will help teachers integrate activities into the curriculum.
"I just want to help get kids out here and learn about the environment," Mr Milne said. "It's just seeing any kind of wildlife." It did not take long. Within a few minutes, Dr Christophe Tourenq, the manager for science and research at EWS, had a delicate snake slithering between his fingers. "You have to be gentle," he said, as the wadi racer curled around a boy's thumb. "You don't do that with all snakes, OK?"
The wadi narrowed. Toes, ankles, and knees got wet as the children strode deeper and deeper into the stream. Moaz Sawaf, a Syrian conservation officer with EWS who was born in the UAE, explained why trap cameras were needed to photograph the shy wildlife of the wadi, such as the Arabian leopard, the cat-like caracal, Blandford's fox, and the Arabian tahr, a type of wild goat. Then, the children climbed over rocks looking for animal droppings hidden for an exercise on animal identification.
"There's so many mysteries," said Zi-yi Kok, a grade three student from Malaysia. "Oh, look," she shouted, pointing to a dragonfly. Upstream, the children learnt about the dragonfly's life cycle as they searched for invertebrates in knee-deep water. Near a spring, Ms Smart taught the children how to make a fish trap using a water bottle and Arabic bread. Ali Mustafa gave up on fish and began to catch Arabian toads. "I caught the fastest frog in the world," he said to all who would listen.
"Learning like this makes you want your parents to learn more and it makes all your school want to learn more," said Ryan Ellis, seven, an Australian grade-three pupil who loves snow leopards. Raffles school is one of the first to explore Wadi Wurayah. It is hoped that as the reserve develops, more trips like this will be possible. "We are always happy to welcome the public here, especially kids, because they are still fresh and like a sponge," said Dr Tourenq. "You see them catch a fish or jump in a waterfall. It seems like a small thing now, but it can change their whole lives."