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Next Level Homeschool Students Travel to PANAMA to Study Marine Sciences

Every year in late April/early May, our Marine Zoology and Oceanography students have the unique opportunity to visit the Next Level Homeschool Panama Field Station, Ojo Bio, in Panama! We spend 5 full days getting hands on with the marine science we have been learning all year, while immersing ourselves in Panamanian culture, giving back, and ADVENTURE! And of course, meeting and making lasting friendships with other students who all share a passion for our oceans!

For our May 2023 workshop, we were fortunate enough to have someone there that could take photos and video! None other than our very own Lara Hincapie, Head of our Language and Visual Arts Departments! With limited equipment and not the best sound stage, she pieced together a fantastic overview of our time together. Just like our regular classes, there’s no time for fluff at Next Level Homeschool! Every day is full of serious learning and amazing opportunities that these kids will never forget! Here’s a quick summary of each day:


Every year our Marine Zoology and Oceanography students have the unique opportunity to visit the Next Level Homeschool Panama Field Station, Ojo Bio, in Panama! We spend 5 full days getting hands on with the marine science we have been learning all year, while immersing ourselves in Panamanian culture! And of course, meeting and making lasting friendships with other students who all share a passion for our oceans! We spent the first Day at Ojo Bio. Oceanography students worked on the interaction of our 3 coastal ecosystems- mangroves, sea grass, and coral reef. They took sediment samples from each area to see deposition from the creek at work, figured out where the different zones were, took salinity samples in each, and then snorkeled though the progression of each zone to see them in action! Marine Zoology students also marked the different zones, but we looked at them from an animal’s point of view! What abiotic factors (sun, tides, air, salinity, rain, etc…) must an animal in each zone be adapted to withstand? Students worked in teams to locate organisms in each zone and list all of the factors affecting them. Then we did a population study using quadrats to count the size and quantity of mangrove crab burrows! When a class wasn’t in science, they were up in our cacao forest learning all about how we harvest and prepare cacao! Why do we do that? To make CHOCOLATE! Students were able to harvest, roast, and grind their own beans to make the freshest chocolate they’ve ever had! Days are full of fun, adventure, and learning with Next Level Homeschool and Ojo Bio!

Click here to see all Day 1 pictures!


Day 2 of our hands-on Marine Zoology and Oceanography class workshops in Panama found us all at my property– Ojo Bio– again! Oceanography students worked on graphing tidal charts of Almirante Bay to see the changes over the course of ten days. They then used that information to make a prediction at 9am of where the tide line would be at 3pm when we left for the day! This required some serious critical thinking and math skills to mark the exact spot on their pole, then put it in the water and wait for the results! They did great!! Then we headed into the mangrove forest to discuss all of the adaptions of the 3 species of mangroves we learned about this year, and to see real life examples of those adaptations and how they affect positioning within the intertidal zone. Because I firmly believe in child labor, I then put them to work in our mangrove nursery!! They went out into the muddy mangroves to collect propagules (baby mangroves) and put them in bags to go into our mangrove nursery. Soon, those plants will be reforesting lost mangroves in the archipelago! Marine zoology students went through our database of 119 reef species documented on our coral reef. We looked at pictures, discussed their taxonomic placement, and adaptations of many of the animals. We then used knowledge from our year long class to create a dichotomous key for some of the species they might find. I then threw them off the dock so they could snorkel and observe all of the creatures up close and personal! Snorkeling is so much more meaningful when you know WHAT you are looking at!! We finished off with a stroll through the mangroves, learning about each species, its adaptations, and its benefits to the ecosystem (and us). As we focus on animals in this class, they needed to get up to speed on these important trees for a trip we’re taking in a few days! When the students weren’t in science, they were with some of our local Ngabe indigenous tribe members, learning how to make traditional bags. They extracted fibers from a plant and learned how to roll the fibers into string. Then, using natural dyes, they were able to color their strings. They then witnessed the extremely tedious process of hand tying each string to make these amazing bags! Wet, muddy, engaged kiddos learning about science and culture…that’s what we love at Next Level Homeschool and Ojo Bio!

Click here to see all Day 2 pictures!


Day 3 started out with a trip to the Smithsonian Tropical Research facility on Isla Colon! We have a lot of students who are considering careers in marine science, so seeing a working research facility like this first hand, and even meeting and talking to scientists who are doing important research on coral bleaching and other issues was such an amazing opportunity! We had a tour of all of the classrooms, equipment, labs, and research aquariums! Not to mention the dorms for university students and researchers who spend extended time here on their classes/projects and the lunch room! 🙂 Plus, we saw some fantastic wildlife- iguanas, caimans, birds, and more!! There is nothing more thrilling to me than to show students what real scientists are doing and sparking that passion that THEY can be doing this, too! Students had the afternoon off, but were instructed to take it easy because we had a long night ahead of us! (Spoiler alert: Kids (and parents) on a tropical island will NOT take it easy!!). We picked students up at the hotel at 7:30pm, and drove to Bluff Beach in the dark- hoping to witness the largest sea turtles in the world, leatherbacks, nesting!! The walk through the sand was not easy, but an almost full moon lit our way. I’m sad to report that even though the students took it upon themselves to do a ritual circle dance they created to summon the ancestral turtle spirits (yes, we are a secular school!!!), no leatherbacks were conjured during our trip. But a wonderful time was had by all anyway, because we were together with friends on a secluded Caribbean island beach experiencing the wonders of nature and science! Just another day in the life of marine zoology and oceanography students at Next Level Homeschool!!

Click here to see all Day 3 pictures!


Day 4 was a full day spent at the Caribbean Coral Restoration facility on Isla Solarte! This is a place where the students can not only see a major difference being made to protect our delicate coral reef ecosystem, but they can be a part of it as well! We talk a lot about the imporantance of coral reefs, and the massive threats facing them on many different fronts. Students were able to spend a couple of hours snorkeling on an artificial reef put into place by CCR- witnessing for themselves the impact that creating these structures has on the ecosystem. It’s flourishing! Corals are now living where there was nothing but rubble before, and when the corals came back, the fish and other organisms came back as well! Among the highlights were seeing a nurse shark and an eagle ray!! After the snorkeling adventure, we had lunch then got to work! We went into the coral nursery area and talked about the condition of the reefs around the archipelago in terms of bleaching. It’s not good. CCR finds genetically strong corals that manage to survive when other individuals of the same species succumb to the high temperatures and hypoxic events. Fragments are brought into their nursery and grown, so these stronger corals can then be placed out on the artificial structures- giving the reef a better chance of surviving stressors!! Because we don’t consider it a good day in Panama unless we get wet AND messy, we then headed to the workshop area where students were able to work together to build artifical reef structures that will one day soon be placed in the ocean! Yes, OUR students will have their own structures that will grow corals and bring back the fish! This is a lasting impact on our local ecosystem- that will last even longer than the wonderful memories we made together today seeing first hand the difference that caring, passionate people can make! And that’s what Next Level Homeschool is all about- making a difference in the future through education today.

Click here to see all Day 4 pictures!


Say it isn’t so! Day 5 is the final day!! But we didn’t spend a second of it being sad that our experience was almost over. We all jumped in to yet another ecosystem restoration project. This time is was mangrove reforestation. Students had been hands on with the mangrove nursery we host at our Ojo Bio property on the mainland. But now it was time to see where those babies in the nursery go when they become “teenage” mangroves! After the mangrove propagules establish a firm root system in our mangrove nursery and can withstand wave action, they are taken out to an area off of Isla Colon for reforestation of a destroyed island there! We work with Fundacion Naturaleza on this project, and they came out and loaded up about 300 mangroves from the nursery into our boat. We picked up the students and got to work! Fundacion Naturaleza workers dug the holes for the mangroves, and students tore open the bottoms of the biodegradable bags, ran a support stake through the bag, placed it into the hole, secured the stake, tied the baby mangrove to the stake with string, filled in the hole, then did it all over again until all of the mangroves were in place! They were all so engaged and proud of the work they were doing! I told them that they need to come back in several years and see the difference that a few hours of their time today made to the ecosystem of this area! We then headed over to the Tangerine International School to have lunch with the students there, share a game of futbol (soccer), and then work together on a project. A very important project. We generated a lot of trash this week- 10 families, with 11 students and 15 family members. Isla Colon in Bocas is a very small, delicate area, and trash is a huge problem. So to wrap up our workshop, I put the kids to work at the Bocas Recycling Center so they could give back to the community that gave them so much this week! Lucky for them, Friday morning was collection day! So a huge room of bags full of mixed plastic, cardboard, and glass awaited them! They spent almost two hours sorting all of it, and the director was amazed at how hard and quickly they worked! These are GOOD kids!!! After sorting was over, they each had a turn at the glass grinding machine, where glass is recycled into small pieces with no sharp edges. We then took the glass pieces into another room where they were mixed with cement to make pavers! It was so cool for the kids to be able to see something going from a piece of trash to a usable product! What a wonderful way to send the students home- two days of really contributing to the planet through coral reef restoration, mangrove reforestation, and recycling! Proving to these amazing students that no matter your age, YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE! And that is what Next Level Homeschool is all about- not just online learning of information, but taking that information into the real world and making a difference!!

Click here to see all Day 5 pictures!

Here’s the video recap of our week- including students and parents talking about what Next Level Homeschool has meant to them!

My name is Mary Middlebrook, and I am the owner of Next Level Homeschool and also the science teacher. I have a BS in Marine Biology from Texas A&M University at Galveston and am super passionate about science and education! My goal is to instill my passion for learning into your children, and help them learn and explore topics in a fun and engaging way they will prepare them for their future.

I homeschooled my youngest son (who is now all grown up!), and during that time realized we needed a little more socialization. So in 2011 I started teaching a marine biology class from my home. When it was over, everyone asked "What class are we doing next year?". My career as a homeschool educator was born! I moved from teaching out of my home to teaching live classes at a homeschool co-op in Los Angeles. My classes were in high demand and would always sell out. Parents started asking me if I could put my classes online. And in 2016, Next Level Homeschool was born! From our first year with three classes- Costa Rica, Harry Potter Genetics, and Marine Zoology- we have now grown into dozens of classes in science, history, language arts, visual arts, and more!

I believe children are capable of learning far beyond the "grade level/age" boxes we put them in. My students never cease to amaze me with their interpretations of topics and ability to think beyond the lessons! That is the joy I find in teaching- watching students excel when given challenging, in depth material. Don't tell them, but I think kids are smarter than adults. ;)

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