It was a tough job for a seventh-grade teacher, but somebody had to do it. And Maryanne Kalin Miller is just the person.
Miller, who has been teaching at Francis W. Parker in Chicago for 40 years, is the school's point person on a cultural exchange program with a couple of schools in Niamey, Niger - a landlocked country smack dab in the middle of northern Africa, on the southern end of the Sahara Desert.
About 10 high school age kids from Niamey are learning how to collect data and do research on animals. About 72 seventh-graders from Chicago are learning the same thing. And they're learning a lot about each other in the process. They're talking to each other via Skype (see video) and studying each others' countries. And when a representative from the school had to go to Niger to help make sure they were all on the same page, well, Miller thought it was her duty to go.
Not that she had fun or anything.
"It was very exciting," said Miller, in a telephone interview after she came back to Chicago. "I knew very little about Niger before I went." She was impressed, she said, by the quality of the two schools they're working with and students, who were all fluent in at least three languages: English, French and a local dialect.
In fact, Miller and the three representatives from the Lincoln Park Zoo who accompanied her on the trip rapidly found out upon meeting the students that they had to change their expectations.
"I realized how quickly these students learned and we added a lot of things" that most kids usually study in college. "They can handle it," Miller said.
This pleased Rachel Bergren, vice president of education at the Lincoln Park Zoo. This cultural and learning exchange program was spearheaded by the zoo, which is located across the street from Parker. The zoo received a $93,000, one-year grant from the American Association of Museums, which suggested they work with the National Museum of Niger on the project.
Bergren accompanied Miller on the trip to Niger, whose main purpose "was to work with the educators, the museum professionals and the students to support them in doing authentic research and sharing the curriculum we've developed at Lincoln Park Zoo."
But Bergren had a secondary reason for going. A great deal of money had been sent to the museum in Niamey to set up a computer lab and camera traps (which record wildlife when people aren't around), and to supply basic tools like binoculars. She also wanted to make sure the students and teachers were following the scientific process the zoo researchers had laid out for them.
"It was important," Bergren said, "for us to see our museum partners delivering on what they said they were going to do."
She was not let down. But she also saw the hurdles that students, teachers and museum professionals have to overcome. A recent Skype call between the students of both countries almost didn't happen, because that section of Niamey had experienced a brownout just hours before. The country, according to Miller and Bergren, simply can't afford electricity all the time, so they have rolling brownouts to conserve.
"The students were so patient, which really indicated to me that this is a way of life," said Bergren.
The pair also saw that a dedication to culture is also a way of life in Niamey. Their hosts were eager to show them around the country, and pointed out things like a music museum, built with the help of the government of Spain, whose mission is to record modes of music that many of Niamey's elders know, but that have not been passed down to younger generations. Miller, in particular, said she was struck by the beauty of music that is hundreds of years old.
The American guests were also taken to a giraffe sanctuary, located at a part of the Niger River where the countries of Niger, Burkina Fasso and Mali intersect. All three countries administer the sanctuary, and for Bergren, this was an example of how dedicated North African countries are to preserving wildlife.
Miller sees the sanctuary as an opportunity for the future, to get out of the zoo (which, in Niamey, is very primitive) and set up inquiries where animals live.
"There's so much more going on that's natural and genuine and organic when you see animals in the wild," Miller said. She wants to see Niamey's students venture out to these natural resources, and perhaps work with some of Parker's older students to study the giraffes and jackals and hippos in depth.
She also has another goal. She wants to go back. And next time, she wants to take some students with her.