This week I’ve been exploring the interesting intersections between tourism and learning. In some cases, like Return to Freedom (the American wild horse sanctuary) and the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute, volunteer tourists learn directly through work. They help take care of animals, help with research, work on the farm, and help conceive of new sustainable projects. In other cases, like the Texas A&M Volunteer Entomology Training Program, volunteers learn in the traditional way, in the classroom. At EcoTeach, the subject of today’s article, volunteer tourists learn in a combination of ways—through wilderness expeditions (a classroom in the forest), conservation work, cultural exchange, and guided exploration.
I love the EcoTeach model. It’s focused on the idea that learning should be both experiential and traditional. Experience is wonderful—it illustrates challenges and involves the volunteer in active solutions—but it’s also limited. Teachers are a necessary part of a holistic educational program. Teachers put an experience in context. They help volunteers explore the cultural, political, and economic implications of a conservation project. For example, EcoTeach fundraises in partnership with Sol Colibri Coffee, a consortium of more than 1,000 “socially and ecologically responsible farmers.” EcoTeach students help sell Sol Colibri coffee to support sustainable projects in the local economy and help get workers a living wage while they help fund their own educational adventures. It’s a fascinating real-world intersection between volunteering, education, and economics.
EcoTeach offers custom trips alongside their group offerings. They also have an all-inclusive pricing model. This is a real plus—often organizations price their projects competitively but their prices don’t include airfare and incidentals. For an international trip, those costs can more than double the overall price. This prevents many budget-conscious travelers from participating. I think volunteer organizations could dramatically increase traveler interest by offering an all-inclusive option.
EcoTeach has ongoing projects in Costa Rica, Peru, and Mexico. They have tours for students and for teachers. They encourage educators to participate by offering deep discounts for their educator tours. This is another thing that sets EcoTeach apart. They want to help create a workforce of teachers who are aware of the many challenges facing conservation efforts. Teachers travel with other teachers, giving them an opportunity to exchange notes and share lesson plans. Teachers can also organize trips with their students after they’ve had their own experience with EcoTeach. I’d love to see other volunteer organizations catering to educators. What better way to access the next generation than through their teachers?