For eight days last month, Crescenta Valley High teacher Christina Engen took night hikes in a Costa Rica jungle, observing leatherback sea turtles that were laying eggs along the coastline of the Pacuare Nature Reserve.
Through Ecology Project International, the science teacher was one of two instructors from California to join more than a dozen other teachers from across the country who received fellowships to learn about Costa Rica's diverse ecology.
While at the nature reserve, she worked alongside 18 researchers to track over 6-foot-long leatherback sea turtles as they came to shore to lay their eggs.
For a few days, the teachers and researchers walked the coast from midnight to 4 a.m. — or sometimes even longer — to take measurements of the mother turtles and count the number of eggs they left behind. If the eggs were laid too close to the ocean or to vegetation, the researchers and teachers relocated them to safer locations.
"It's pretty cool to see how dedicated they are to protect the turtles and help them the best they can," she added.
The preserve is monitored by two guards who are on alert for egg-hungry poachers attempting to illegally sell the eggs for buyers' consumption.
Engen said she learned that for every 1,000 eggs that hatch, it's likely just one turtle will reach sexual maturity due to the dangers they can face in their environment, including getting trapped in fishing nets.
For much of her time in Costa Rica, she was living off the grid, without access to electricity.
At the preserve, cooks often prepared potato pancakes on propane stoves as well as salads with beets. She also enjoyed rice and beans, plantains, papaya, bananas and tomatoes.
While visiting a Costa Rican jungle reserve, she hiked in rubber boots to keep safe from the snakes in the mud. She also encountered bats, sloths, poison-dart frogs, praying mantises, large butterflies, scorpions and a wild toucan.
She also spoke with researchers who were studying capuchin monkeys.
Engen returned to her classroom at Crescenta Valley High last week to share her experiences with her students, and she said it informed her of all the hard work that scientists put into researching wildlife and the environment. She also learned how they connect the dots of their data to produce their studies.
With the knowledge she gained, Engen said it enabled her to "have a little bit more honest discussion about what [research] looks like and means" in the classroom.
Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.