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Mackenzie Carlson dives into new worlds

Esko High School junior Mackenzie Carlson spent five weeks in paradise this summer - and worked harder than she's ever worked before.

Carlson spent a summer school term at The Island School in Cape Eleuthera, Bahamas, an educational program that fully immerses high school students in a sustainable environment where they work with visiting researchers and learn to apply the knowledge they gain to solve real world problems.

"When I first went down there, I thought, 'Yeah, it's school so we'll be doing some learning,'" she admitted, "but when I got there, it was a lot different than I thought it would be. It was really hard work. I didn't worry about it too much, though, because I wanted to go there so badly it didn't really matter to me."

The Island School encourages student applicants who have "a curiosity about the future of the world around them."

"It kind of attracts a certain type of student," agreed Carlson, "one who is really into learning and is very motivated. You're always challenged to do your best there, even if you have to push yourself. For example, if you've never been in a sport before, you probably won't be able to physically run the triathlon at the end of the session, so maybe instead of running the five miles, you walk them."

Carlson first learned about The Island School through Esko science teacher Chris Evavold, who spent time there as a visiting educator and was instrumental in presenting the program to his students in Esko. It sounded like the perfect fit for Carlson, who has long considered going into the field of marine biology.

"I've always liked math and science and wanted to go into some field related to that," she said, indicating she hopes to attend Brown University in Rhode Island because of its programs in that particular specialty.

And so, Carlson decided to apply for the summer term at The Island School this year. She filled out the requisite forms and submitted the required essays and letters of recommendation. The school is open to sophomores and juniors from throughout the United States and Canada as well as natives of the Bahamas, and Carlson was one of 24 students selected to attend.

She received word she had been accepted for the school about two months before departing, though she had begun fundraising for it as soon as she applied in hopes that she'd get there. She received a scholarship from The Island School to cover part of her tuition costs, but part of the school's requirements was to raise part of it herself, which she did by having craft and garage sales, applying for grants and asking family members for support.

Even before departing for Eleuthera, the students were required to begin preparations by doing extensive reading and study about the area and its ecosystem. Carlson departed for the school in mid-June and was there through July 27.

Her introduction to the school was swift and almost head-spinning.

"Each day held a new experience," said Carlson, "such as baiting sharks for research, free diving up to 30 feet, and wading through mud caves waist-high in water.

"Everything we did challenged us," she said.

They slept in un-air conditioned dormitories, showered and washed their hair in rain water collected on the roof, and started their days out early, including an hour of exercising, as well as four-mile runs, cliffing, SCUBA diving and other strenuous activities. They even participated in a couple of triathlons over the five-week session, comprised of swimming, biking and running.

"One of the things we did was called a 'solo' as part of a three-day kayak trip," related Carlson. "The students were split up, and each of us was assigned to a spot alone on this really long beach. We had tented there the day before, and at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, we all walked to our sites and stayed there by ourselves for 24 hours, sleeping out under the stars. We each got a tarp and a bug net because there was a ton of bugs, such as mosquitos and flies. The whole idea was to reflect and be silent, and we brought along journals that we could either write or draw in. I could barely even see any of the other students in the distance, and I had no idea what time it was at any point, so I just had to judge by the light."

Each of the students brought jugs of water, and later in the day someone came by in a kayak and dropped off a minimal meal for each of them, comprised of granola and a grapefruit.

Not all of the young people could tolerate it, however.

"At some point during the night, I could hear one of the kids yell out from way off in the distance, 'I HATE THIS SOLO!'" related Carlson with a grin.

The students' days included a generous share of academic study as well, with classes such as human ecology, marine ecology, and hands-on field research in the environment. Carlson was assigned to a project studying lionfish, an invasive species that inhabits the waters surrounding the island and reproduces at alarming rates.

"They lay huge eggs masses of something like 30,000 eggs," said Carlson, "and the current can carry the egg masses great distances."

Carlson and her team, guided by a graduate researcher, donned SCUBA gear and tested the currents of the area to determine where the lionfish are most likely to thrive. She said they have no natural predators in the area and are threatening to take over some of the species native to the local waters. She added that the lionfish is not harmful or aggressive, though they are frightening to look at and sport a halo of venomous spines, but said they can be eaten once the spines are


"We actually ate some and it was really good," related Carlson. "Its taste has been compared to grouper. There's an effort to try to get more of the people down there to eat lionfish instead of some of the fish that are becoming more endangered, such as conch."

Her research group also had the opportunity to participate in dissecting a lionfish and sending samples of the flesh to various laboratories in the United States for further study.

On Research Day, she and her fellow students were able to spend a full day with their research group at the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, which she described as being "like a state park except that it spans both land and sea."

"Since it's protected," she explained, "we were looking to see if their reefs there were healthier, based on the coral quality and whether there are more native fish and less lionfish. We also talked to the warden about how they control lionfish."

The students also participated in what were called "settlement times," where they were free to just go out and talk with the natives of the island.

"Everyone there was really nice," Carlson said. "If you're walking down the street, they expect you to talk to them. If you don't say hello, they think it's rude. They assume that by not saying hi to them, you're kind of prejudiced."

Among the most important lessons the students learned while at The Island School was how to live sustainably, realizing that everything they used up had to be disposed of in some way - almost none of it going to the small islands' very limited landfill space and much of it having to be transported out by ship or barge. People of the island also try to raise as much local food as possible rather pay to have it shipped in, and The Island School has its own school farm that is fertilized organically and watered with collected rain water in order to provide fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables for those who live and work there.

Student groups at the school created their own environmental projects in order to learn "systems thinking." Carlson said her group constructed what they called a "Phoenix Box" - utilizing natural fertilizers to grow plants within an untreated wooden frame that would not only prohibit chemical contaminants from getting into the food but also contribute to the organic matter of the soil as the slowly rotting wood begins to break down.

The summer session at The Island School concluded with a Parents' Week, and Carlson's entire family traveled to Eleuthera to visit her and learn about the school projects and research.

As Carlson prepared to depart for Minnesota, she reflected on her time at the school and all that it meant to her.

"You get really close to a lot of the students and faculty because you live together as well as go to school together," she said. "I made a lot of really good friends, though I probably won't see a lot of them again, since I was the only one there from Minnesota, and only one other student was even from the Midwest."

She related how she also learned a whole lot more about the challenges faced by people in underdeveloped countries through the students' environmental projects, their "settlement times," and such challenging exercises as carrying a five-gallon jug of water at a run for a distance of four miles, with each of them taking turns carrying it.

"That's the distance that people in some countries have to go every day to get water," Carlson said, "- but they don't have a whole group of people helping them out!"

She added that she returned home with a new perspective on environmental stewardship.

"It made me want to do more to change our world," she said. "If no one does anything about it, the problems are going to just keep building. You don't always think about the things you throw away, figuring, 'Oh, this is just a gum wrapper,' but almost everything can be recycled. We need to be more water conscious, too, not just in conserving but in thinking about it how we use it. We have to learn to live well in a place."

Attending The Island School also confirmed for Carlson that she wants to study marine biology. For starters, the report she did on lionfish made it all the way to the Minnesota State Fair as part of her 4-H project, earning a purple ribbon.

All of the challenges made her trip one she will never forget. 

"Going to the Island School was the best decision I have ever made," Carlson said. "If I could, I would go back there tomorrow!"