Course Overview

Experience the spectacular desert and marine landscapes of two richly diverse biosphere reserves through ecological and social field methods.

Discover the rich waters and terrestrial ecosystems of Baja. A UNESCO World Heritage site and biosphere reserve located on the Sea of Cortez, Bahía de los Ángeles is a unique ecoregion with remarkable marine and terrestrial (mainland and island) environments well suited to a broad range of studies. Earth Expeditions students also explore Rancho San Gregorio, a family-owned ranch located in a small canyon where its isolation and climate make it a hotspot for desert investigations. In partnership with El Canto de la Tierra, join colleagues and gain proficiency in applying field methods to ecological questions and conservation practice while surveying these unique ecosystems.

A premise of this course is that field methods are not only essential for ecological research, they can serve as the basis for participatory education, public engagement in science, and community-based environmental stewardship. Many groups, from teachers leading schoolyard ecology to parataxonomists involved in ethnobotanical research, share a need for reliable information obtained through robust field methods to build understanding and to promote informed action. Field methods—point sampling, capture/recapture, quadrant studies, pitfall traps, line transects, and others--are fundamental tools that allow investigators of all backgrounds to generate knowledge needed to become better informed environmental citizens. Students will become familiar with a range of field methods and contribute to an on-going cattle exclusion project studying the impact of cattle on desert plant communities.

Prior to and following the field experience in Baja, students will complete coursework via Dragonfly Workshops' Web-Based Learning Community as they apply experiences to their home institutions.

Course Themes

  • Field methods
  • Introduction to the ecology of desert ecosystems
  • Marine investigations
  • Inquiry-driven learning
  • Community-based conservation
  • Participatory education

A typical Earth Expeditions day in Baja California, Mexico is likely to include:

  • Study at field conservation sites
  • Lectures
  • Student-led discussions of key course topics
  • Engagement with local communities
  • Desert and marine exploration
  • Open inquiries
  • Journal writing

Baja California, Mexico

The rugged Baja peninsula extends 806 miles from the U.S. – Mexico border to its southernmost point at Cabo San Lucas. The peninsula is bordered on its west coast by the Pacific Ocean and on the east coast by the calmer waters of the Sea of Cortez. The land between these two bodies of water is remarkably varied from the forested high mountain ranges running through the central region, to the four desert sub-regions, each with its own distinct geography and flora, to the salt marshes and mangrove swamps of the coasts, to the arid tropical forests of the southern Cape region.

Planned Sites in Baja California, Mexico

Rancho San Gregorio

Rancho San Gregorio lies at the heart of Vizcaíno Desert and the recently designated Valle de los Cirios Biological Reserve. Two important springs supply the area with the abundant source of water that has been vital for supporting the unique flora and fauna that call this region home. Descendants of the Villavicencio family have been the primary residents of San Gregorio since before the arrival of the Spanish in the late 1600s. Traditional knowledge of local plants for use in medicine, construction, and subsistence has been passed down over the millennia and remains vital to the way of life in San Gregorio today. Westerly winds carrying moisture-laden air from the Pacific support astonishingly rich and diverse vegetation in parts of the Vizcaíno desert. Due to its high degree of isolation, the region also supports numerous endangered species, including the desert pronghorn antelope, Mexican bighorn sheep, cardon cactus, and cirio (boojum) tree. Rancho San Gregorio is located in a small canyon on the western slope of the Peninsular Ranges of Baja California, and its isolation and climate make it a hotspot for desert ecological study.

Bahía de los Ángeles

The small fishing village of Bahía de los Ángeles is located in the San Felipe Desert on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. In contrast to the sparse desert landscape, the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez are rich with life. Locals depend on the highly productive waters for their livelihood but commercial overfishing has made it increasingly difficult for residents to support themselves and has threatened many species living in the bay.

In recognition of the importance of Bahía de los Ángeles and surrounding areas, UNESCO designated the region a World Heritage Site in 2005: "The diversity of terrestrial and marine life is extraordinary and constitutes a unique ecoregion of high priority for biodiversity conservation."

In 2007, Mexican President Felipe Calderon established the Bahía de Los Ángeles Biosphere Reserve. The reserve encompasses 957,660 acres of coastal, marine, and island ecosystems that provide habitat for a number of threatened and endangered species including whale sharks, eastern Pacific green sea turtles, fin whales, and killer whales. The area is often referred to as the “Galapagos” of Mexico for the spectacular nature of its scenery and the unique plant and animal species that inhabit the region.

(Course locations are subject to change.)

Dragonfly Workshops Web-Based Learning Community

Upon acceptance into the program, students will join instructors and classmates in Dragonfly Workshops' collaborative Web community to complete pre-trip assignments. After returning home, students will continue to work in their Web-based community through early December to develop projects initiated in the field, discuss assignments, and exchange ideas. All students should expect to spend two to three hours a week contributing to their Web-Based Learning Community from their home or school computer. Navigating the Web platform is easy--it's designed for people with no prior computer experience. To learn more about this unique Web experience, visit

More Information

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