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The Geography of Awe & Resilience – National Geographic Education Blog

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Featured image: Mangrove Restoration Project in St. Ann, Jamaica. Photo by Sandra M. Turner

National Geographic Explorer and Educator Sandra Turner wrote this post

I inherited the love of maps and storytelling from my father. Like curried meats, coconut rice and peas with plantain, the two were staples in our home. He was a voracious reader of maritime novels and used maps to help navigate life-like characters across the global seas. As children, we were suspended on his every word as he crafted magical tales of people and places along map coordinates. My eight brothers were fascinated by the varying sizes of other countries compared to our small island of Jamaica. Captivated by the ocean, the iridescent hues of blues that surround the Caribbean islands stole my attention. I spent hours wondering how these pieces of land mass, strung like pearls, arrived between the vast Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. This early fascination with maps fueled my interest in the geological formation of islands, ocean exploration and coastal conservation. 

Map created by Sandra M. Turner

From its verdant emerald mountains to its vibrant turquoise waters, the Caribbean is home to more than 700 islands and islets just south of the eastern United States and east of Central America. These land masses were formed mainly by volcanic eruptions from the ocean floor, while others broke off the North American continents millions of years ago. Due to tectonic plate activity, the region is prone to natural hazards like earthquakes and volcano eruptions. The region’s rich biodiversity, ecosystems, culture and communities are also vulnerable to hurricanes, floods and coastal erosion due to a warming planet.

Mangrove Restoration Project in St. Ann, Jamaica. Photo by Sandra M. Turner

Coastal Conservation & Resilience

It’s an honor to be a National Geographic Certified Educator and Explorer, working in the Caribbean region to study and photograph its changing ocean, natural landscapes and culture. My fieldwork relies heavily on forming enduring partnerships with marine conservation organizations across the Caribbean. Through these relationships, I can make an impact on frontline communities by participating in restoring mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass meadows. The health of these ecosystems is vital for marine species to flourish and to strengthen coastal resilience against the impacts of climate change. I also have opportunities to share technical expertise and educational resources to help advance environmental literacy and local citizen science projects.

Aerial photo of Freshwater Lake, Dominica’s largest lake. Located near Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Yuri A. Jones

When not in a wetsuit and a pair of goggles, you’ll find me spending quiet, meditative moments behind the lens of my camera. During these moments, I’m often moved to tears while capturing morning sunrises over the undulating rhythm of the ocean’s blue waves or the sweet, seductive beauty of lush green rainforests as a symphony of birds take flight against slow-moving cloud formations. I’m humbled whenever I have the opportunity to trek through the Caribbean’s formidable natural World Heritage sites to document and report on noticeable biodiversity and habitat changes. I have the honor to climb three of the nine Caribbean natural sites — the Blue Mountains in search of Jamaica’s endemic blue kite swallowtail butterfly, Dominica’s Morne Trois Piton and St. Lucia’s Gro Piton. What feats of and wonder they are! I’ve only got six more mountains to conquer!

Image from the “Return of the Reef” project in Westmoreland Jamaica. Photo by Sandra M. Turner.

The Transformational Power of Awe

The pandemic was a period of deep reflection. Without the ability to travel to conduct fieldwork, I spent a fair amount of time questioning what legacy I wanted to leave as a National Geographic Explorer and Educator. The answer came with great clarity while teaching a virtual climate change workshop to 9th-graders in Jamaica. It was painful to see the youthful, energetic and engaged students I had come to know now vividly despondent and largely absent from their webcams. Faced with the uncertainty of the time and the threat of yet another hurricane brewing in the Atlantic, I quickly decided to spare them my plans to discuss the causes of sea-level rise.

Instead, I told them a triumphant story about how long it took me to learn how to swim, conquer my fear of the ocean and my newfound love with freediving. I recounted the unbelievable moment when I received the call from National Geographic informing me that I was selected to be an Explorer. I followed the stories with a 10-minute video of underwater footage from a recent project site to show how coral restoration work is done and why it’s important. 

What happened next was so unexpected. I wrote about the experience in a blog post called Breathe Like A Warrior: The Profound Lessons I’m Taking Into 2022. As students turned their cameras on, I saw their faces light up with excitement as they watched the sights and sounds of the ocean. They sat mesmerized by the school of colorful fish singing and dancing around the vibrant coral reef. They cheered as a team member who is a notorious cliff diver performed a backward triple somersault before plunging into the ocean.  

As I thought about the students later that evening, it occurred to me that I missed the opportunity to answer their many questions by exploring maps with them. “Where were you?” “How did you get there?” “What was it like to be there?” Recalling their exuberance, I combed the internet for words to help describe what I saw on their faces. Awe!

Sandra Turner guides William Knibb High School students engaged in the Jamaica Awareness of Mangroves in Nature (J.A.M.I.N.) program as they plant the mangrove seedlings they’ve carefully nurtured over the last eight months. Photo by Amy Heemsoth, © Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation.

Dacher Keltner (University of California, Berkeley), the leading psychologist on the science of awe, says that awe is the “feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” I spent a significant part of 2022 studying Dr. Keltner’s awe-inspiring research as foundational support for a new National Geographic Society-funded project called Why We Explore, The Geography of Awe. With Dr. Keltner serving as the project’s scientific advisor, our goal was to curate more awe-inspiring content from my expeditions and fieldwork to ensure that all students have access to ocean and climate literacy from geographical perspectives that cultivate a sense of awe and an #Explorer Mindset. I proposed that all children can and should experience awe. This past summer, I had the opportunity to test this hypothesis with project activities during school visits.

I met Amy Heemsoth of Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation in Trelawny, Jamaica, to form a new education partnership. I was fortunate to visit the day that high school students in her program, Jamaica in Awareness of Mangroves in Nature (J.A.M.I.N), planted their mangrove seedlings at the ocean’s shore and gave presentations on what experiences they gained. I wrote about my observations in a blog post, “In Awe of J.A.M.I.N”  

Mapping Wonder with students from Ms. Charles 6th grade class at the Dugard Combined Primary School in Choiseul St. Lucia. Photo by Sandra M. Turner

While in Saint Lucia, fellow National Geographic Certified Educator and photographer Kirk Elliott and I spent three days at the Dugard Primary Combined School. Together with Ms. Charles’ 6th grade class, we explored maps and mapmaking. Students learned to form questions during an “I Wonder” activity. We also created empowering affirmations while learning breathing exercises and playing joyful games in the schoolyard. From these combined observations, I’ve concluded that when placed in a safe, nurturing environment and engaged in meaningful, expressive and guided activities, all children can experience awe. 

6th grade student, Ali Charles, Conquering Gro Piton in Soufrière, St. Lucia. Photo by Kirk Elliot.

Human Conservation and Resilience

With just a few old and tattered paper maps, my father cultivated awe through his love of geography, exploration and storytelling. With the launch of my Geography of Awe project in early 2024, I will follow in my father’s legacy. In the face of a global mental health crisis and unprecedented climate-related impacts in the Caribbean region, the project’s trauma-informed activities shift the focus away from natural disasters and catastrophes, which are often over-emphasized in climate education. In a world where we are faced with major crises at every turn, it is vital that we offer students time and space to become inspired by the awe and beauty of our world, so that they might feel better equipped to understand the challenges of our time.

As a proud National Geographic Certified Educator and Explorer, I see myself as a mediator between the world and my students, helping them to navigate the complexities of our changing planet. The Geography of Awe’s instructional content integrates lots of play, global and geographical thinking skills, National Geographic’s reimagined MapMaker tool, and digital storytelling with ArcGIS StoryMaps to help students understand the interconnected nature of our planet. It’s my hope that all children will know that they are an intricate part of a vast universe of possibilities. What legacy will you leave behind?

Sandra Turner is a National Geographic Explorer who partners with marine protected areas on coral reef and mangrove restoration projects to build habitat and coastal resiliency in the Caribbean region. On a quest to explore the Caribbean’s tropical rainforests and natural World Heritage sites, her research focuses on the geological formation of islands, the history of hurricanes, and the Caribbean’s changing landscapes and culture due to the impacts of climate change.

A global climate and ocean educator, Turner curates learning experiences with a blend of her field experiences as an ocean conservationist, free diver, and photographer. She integrates exploration-based activities with geography, STEAM, and digital storytelling with ArcGIS StoryMaps to inspire awe and curiosity about the natural world in new generations of Explorers.

Trained under former Vice President Al Gore, Turner is a Climate Reality Corp member, serving as a Facilitator and Training Mentor. She received further certificate training in Climate Change and Health from Yale School of Public Health, the Health Effects of Climate Change from Harvard University, and additional coursework from the SDG Academy. 

This blog post is part of the Society’s celebration of this year’s Geography Awareness Week happening now!

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