Earth Expeditions
Quiet bay, Sea of Cortez
Seabirds, Sea of Cortez
Desert landscape with agaves
Whale fluke
Desert succulent, close up
Grey whale surfacing
Creosote seeds silvered by sun
Silhouette of frigate bird in blue sky

Course Overview

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

Discover the rich marine, island, and mainland ecosystems of Baja. Students in this course stay and study in Bahía de los Ángeles, a UNESCO World Heritage site and biosphere reserve located on the Sea of Cortez.  The dramatic land and seascape of Bahía de los Ángeles includes a remarkable range of marine and desert habitats well suited to a broad range of studies. Students will stay at the Vermilion Sea Field Station, a historic center for marine studies, and at Rancho San Gregorio, a family-owned ranch in the heart of the Vizcaino desert, home to some of the most unique desert plant species on Earth, including the world’s largest cacti (Pachycereus pringlei), elephant trees (Bursera microphylla), and boojums (Fouquieria columnaris).

A key premise of this course is that field methods are not only essential for ecological research, they can serve as the basis for participatory education and for public engagement in science and environmental stewardship. A wide range of diverse investigators — from teachers leading schoolyard ecology to parataxonomists involved in ethnobotanical research — all share a need for reliable information obtained through robust field methods to build understanding and to promote informed action. Field methods — such as point sampling, capture/recapture, quadrant studies, pitfall traps, and line transects — are fundamental tools that allow investigators of all backgrounds to generate knowledge needed to become better informed environmental citizens. Students in this course will become familiar with a range of field methods and contribute to ongoing projects.

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.

The Vermilion Sea Field Station (VSFS) is a research center overlooking Bahía de Los Ángeles in Baja California. This twelve-room adobe building is one of the first dwellings built during the town's original settlement in the 1930's. The VSFS lies within a small fishing village of approximately 700 people, and works with the community to preserve the "Bay of the Angels".

(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 dragonflyworkshops.org.

More Information

For more information on the admissions process, physical requirements, and more, please visit Admissions and/or FAQs.

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Course Details

Notes from the Field

Cindy Kelly in Baja
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At a Pacific sand dune, Baja

Cindy Kelly

Kindergarten Teacher from Cincinnati, Ohio

"‘The power of the field’ is a wonderful phrase to explain how amazing it is to actually see and do what you might read or hear about through others. There is nothing like an experience to make real what you may have only imagined!"


Program Costs