A Quest to Save Sacred Waters in the Maya World

February 1 2018
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A thousand years ago, the ancient Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in modern-day Mexico built towering pyramids and beautiful palaces. They charted stars and planets in the heavens and kept elaborate calendars and histories related to these celestial beings. The earth itself was also a sacred place filled with divine presence. Perhaps most sacred were the cenotes, natural wells of life-giving fresh water. These openings into the earth's surface were places where underworld deities and rain gods dwelled.


Today, many cenotes function as tourist attractions. People from all over the world can venture into the Maya underworld among stalactites and stalagmites and swim in the deep blue waters of cenotes. Unfortunately, however, many cenotes have become increasingly polluted with trash and other waste.

Our expedition seeks to preserve cenotes as an important part of Maya culture. We are a partnership of both Mexican and U.S. faculty, university students, teachers, and affiliated professionals. Together, we are developing curriculum for students in Mexico ages 11-14 surrounding the science and history of cenotes. Ultimately, it is our goal that young people in Yucatan will be the voice and stewards for these precious sources of freshwater and Maya heritage.

February 1 2018

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Mission Underway

Drone submerging is underway! Last week, middle schools teachers Mr. Manuel Jesús Chan Ontiveros and Mr. Ángel Mendoza Rodríguez from the community of Tahcabo, Yucatan led their students in driving the project drone to the depths of the town cenote. Check out what we saw in the embedded video. Our favorite cenote resident was the local turtle, Big Gus, but unfortunately we also saw a lot of trash.


One of the goals of our project is to act as conservation stewards for Big Gus and the entire cenote. We are creating collaborative middle school activities to do just that.

¡La inmersión del dron está en marcha! La semana pasada, profesores de escuelas secundarias, Sr. Manuel Jesús Chan Ontiveros y el Sr. Ángel Mendoza Rodríguez, de la comunidad de Tahcabo Yucatán, llevaron a sus estudiantes a conducir el proyecto dron a las profundidades del cenote de la cuidad. Mira lo que vimos en el vídeo incrustado. Nuestro favorito cenote residente fue la tortuga local, Big Gus, pero por desgracia también vimos mucha basura.

Uno de los objetivos de nuestro proyecto es servir de administradores de conservación para Big Gus y el cenote entero. Estamos creando actividades colaborativas de la escuela secundaria para hacer precisamente eso.

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This past week our Universidad de Oriente (UNO) student ambassadors Yaremi Yaquelin Tuz May and Fermin Castillo Castro led drone demonstrations with middle school teacher Ms. Daniela Angélica Garrido Durán. They also helped to deliver introductions to Maya codices. Codices were sacred books written by the ancient Maya before the arrival of Europeans. Most were burned, but a few managed to survive. In addition to the footage derived from our drone, teachers will be using facsimile copies of these precious books to teach students about the importance of the cenotes in the ancient past.

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What a wonderful week down in Valladolid, Yucatan! Our third and final teacher workshop, "Archaeology and Cultural Patrimony of Cenotes" was a big hit. Thank you to all who helped and attended. A special thank you to our codice specialist Dr. Gabrielle Vail, archaeologist Fatima Tec Pool, and education specialist Dr. Freddy Espadas Sosa. Now begins our implementation phase with the kids!

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Planning for our next Cenotes teacher workshop has begun! This workshop is called the "Archaeology and Cultural Patrimony of Cenotes". Gabrielle Vail (featured here live on Skype!) will be speaking about Postclassic codices... and we will even have facsimile copies of the original codices to work from! Stay tuned for the rest of our awesome line-up! #Cenotes


¡Ha empezado la planificación de nuestro próximo Cenotes taller de maestros ha comenzado! Este taller se llama la "Arqueología y Patrimonio Cultural de los Cenotes". Gabrielle Vail (¡representado aquí en vivo por Skype!) hablará sobre los códices posclássicos...y incluso tendremos copia facsímil de los códices originales para trabajar! Manténgase atentos al resto de nuestra asombrosa línea! #Cenotes

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Our underwater drones and water test kits have arrived! We are busy preparing for our next workshop this week, but couldn't resist taking one of our drones for a test spin in a cenote. These drones will eventually be used by teachers and kids in Yucatan to explore the cenotes in their communities. They take video and provide readings for direction, depth and temperature. Check out our first underwater journey below!


¡Nuestros drones submarinos y kits de prueba de agua han llegado! Estamos ocupados preparándonos para nuestro próximo taller esta semana, pero no podíamos resistir a tomar uno de nuestros drones para una vuelta de prueba en un cenote. Estos drones serán eventualmente utilizados por maestros y nińos en Yucatán para explorar los cenotes en sus comunidades. Toman el vídeo y proporcionan lecturas para la dirección, la profundidad y la temperatura. ¡Mira nuestro primer paseo bajo el agua!

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We've had a busy few weeks! Recently, we had our second teacher workshop, "The Science and Safety of Cenotes". Check out our line-up of topics and speakers!


Introductions to the Science and Safety of Cenotes: Dr. Iván Batún (UNO/Co-director of the Cenotes project)

The History and Geology of Cenotes: Mr. Erick Sosa Rodríguez (SEDUMA)

The Biology of Cenotes: Biologist Manuel Bojorquez Acevedo

The Security and Legal Protection of Cenotes: Mr. Jorge Armando Andrade Canché

The Importance of Water and the Yucatan Aquifer in the Local and Global Context: Mr. Erick Torres Burgos (SEDUMA)

Co-director Dr. Dylan Clark of UNC also provided teachers with an introduction to the project's collaboration with EarthEcho, an international NGO invested in supporting youth in conserving and protecting our planet's water sources! In the months to come, we will be using water test kits that EarthEcho donated to test water quality in the cenotes! This information will be posted to EarthEcho's website and shared globally! Stay tuned!

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¡Hemos tenido unas semanas muy ocupadas! Recientemente, tuvimos nuestro segundo taller para maestros,”La Ciencia y la Seguridad de Cenotes”. ¡Revisa nuestra línea de temas y oradores!

Introducción a la Ciencia y Seguridad de Cenotes: Dr. Iván Batún (UNO/Co-director del proyecto cenotes)

La Historia y la Geología de los Cenotes: Sr. Erik Sosa Rodríguez (SEDUMA)

La Biología de Cenotes: el biólogo Manuel Bojorquez Acevedo

La Seguridad y Protección Legal de los Cenotes: Sr. Jorge Armando Andrade Canché

La importancia del agua y del acuífero de Yucatán en el contexto local y global: Sr. Erick Torres Burgos (SEDUMA)

Co-director Dr. Dylan Clark de UNC también proporcionó a los maestros con una introducción a la colaboración del proyecto EarthEcho, ¡una ONG internacional que invirtió en apoyar a los jóvenes en la conservación y protección de las fuentes acuáticas de nuestro planeta! ¡En los próximos meses, estaremos usando kits de prueba de agua que EarthEcho donó para probar la calidad del agua en los cenotes! !Esta información se publicará en el sitio web de EarthEcho y se compartirá globalmente! ¡Sigan sintonizados!

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REALLY excited to hear that we will be partnering with EarthEcho International for our cenotes project and taking part in their Water Challenge! EarthEcho has offered our
project a generous gift of water test kits to help with our Science and Safety modules in local schools! Kids will now be able to literally test the waters in their local cenotes within the coming months! Check out the Water Challenge at: http://www.monitorwater.org/

¡Realmente emocionado de escuchar que nos asociaremos con EarthEcho Internacional para nuestro proyecto de cenotes y participaremos en su desafío de agua! ¡EarthEcho ha ofrecido a nuestro proyecto un generoso regalo de kits de prueba de agua para ayudar con nuestros módulos de ciencia y seguridad en las escuelas locales! ¡ Los niños ahora serán capaces de probar las aguas en sus cenotes locales en los próximos meses! Mira el desafío de agua en: http://www.monitorwater.org/

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English: A major goal for our project is to collaborate closely with middle school teachers to create interactive and exploratory teaching modules for students. On Wednesday, July 11th, we had our first collaborative workshop for teachers, researchers, and student ambassadors of UNO, called: "Oral History, Folklore & Cenotes," taking place at the Universidad de Oriente in Valladolid, Yucatan. Those present were our directors, project staff, and teachers of our nine Yucatan secondary (middle) schools, as well as our invited Maya literature specialist Hannah Palmer, and oral history experts archivists Biff Hollingsworth and Bryan Gimeza--all from the University of North Carolina. Together we created oral history backpack kits for students to use in the field and discussed the importance of oral history for the conservation of cenotes. We talked about the importance of collecting those stories, since they shelter all the information that is transmitted from generation to community. Below please find Spanish and also Maya translations! Thanks to all for their hard work and contributions!!! What a success!


Spanish: Primer taller colaborativo para maestros, investigadores & embajadores estudiantiles de la UNO, llamado: "Historia oral, folclor & los cenotes," llevando a cabo el miércoles 11 de Julio del presente año en la Universidad de Oriente, estuvieron presentes, maestros de las nueve secundarias, donde se platicó: La importancia de la historia oral para la conservación de los cenotes; así como la importancia de recopilar esas historias. Ya que resguardan toda esa información que son útiles e importantes, que van transmitiéndose de generación entre las comunidades.

Maya: Tí múchi'ik baon, tu najil xooc UNO, le mierkoles 11 tí juilo'e yeetel le kansaj xookob tí u bolom secundariasobo'b ku partisiparobo'b, le meen tík tsikbaloon ba'axten ka'abet le' k'ajlay ku tsikbatal tí le mejen kajalo'ob tí u kanantal le ts'ono'oto'bo', beey takxan ba'axten ka'abet le' tsikbalobo'ob. Meen ku kanantikob le' Ba'ax kabet, e ku, bin kaj'oltal tí tu lakal le mako'ko' wuay yok'ol ka'b, te' kajalo'obo'.

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Spanish: 1 de Agosto del año en curso, siendo las 10: am, nos reunimos los embajadores estudiantiles juntamente con el Co-director del proyecto de Cenotes para planear de manera previa el segundo taller consultivo en donde participaran docentes y directivos de las secundarias participantes; el taller lleva por nombre "CIENCIA Y SEGURIDAD", en la plática de hoy, cada uno de los participantes tuvo la libertad de expresar sus opiniones al respecto de las actividades ya realizadas ademas a cada uno de los asistentes se les proporcionó una libreta personalizada del proyecto la cual nos servira como una herramienta clave para que podamod tomar notas de los puntos importantes que se dan en los talleres y consejos. Así como los que tendremos o de cualquier salida de campo que tendremos como parte del proyecto, además de que pudimos programar nuestras proximas reuniones para seguir avanzando.


Maya: Tu yáax k´inil Agosto tu ja'abil 2018 las 10:00 ja'alskab k'iine tik much'ikbaon tu láakal le kakpaj'ano'on ti' le proyectoó beyxan yéetel u ko-directorik u ti'al ik ta'anik bíx ko'on meyajt u ka'apel tayeril tu'ux kuj takpajal jka'ansajo'ob yéetel u jo' popil jka'ansajo'ob ti' secundarias tak koja'ano'obi. U k'aaba' le tallero' " Ciencia yéetel seguridad" ti u tsikbalil le bejla'aka' kaada juntuule' yanchaj u pajtalil u t'an u ya'alik ba'ax ku tuklik tu yo'olal le mayaja', beyxan ti' tu láakal le tik much'ikbo'ono' ts'aabto'on jumpéel pikil ju'un, le'elo' yan u k'a'ana'anchajalto'on u ti'al ik ts'ibtiko'on tuu lakal tu yo'olal le proyektoo' je'el bix i' tallero'ob kursos wa meyajo'ob tí campo', bey xan ti'al ik ts'ibtiko'on u jeel u k'iinil ik much'ik'ikbaon.

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Our student ambassadors from the Universidad de Oriente (UNO) in Yucatan, Mexico have been helping us with our photovoice activities. Our UNO students worked to translate descriptions in both Spanish and Maya of photos our secundaria (middle school) students have been taking. Students take photos of things related to cenotes that are meaningful to them. In the image below a student took a picture of contamination in their town's cenote and talked to us about the image. The student's silhouette can be seen in the image. The English, Spanish and Maya descriptions of the image are below:


English: In this photograph we encounter the silhouette of a young girl who is observing trash on the green ground, this trash is the same trash that forms part of the contamination that the principal cenote in the town suffers from. Our perception (provided by the image) is that this indicates the preoccupation the children have for preserving this natural site. Even though they are young, it appears to bother them to see the garbage surrounding the cenote. They seem concerned that we should avoid and reduce the pollution that nature has suffered.

Spanish: En esta fotografia podemos encontrar la silueta de una nina que esta observando la basura en el suelo verde, esta basura misma que forma parte de la contaminacion que sufre el cenote principal de su comunidad y nuestra percepcion es aquella que indica la preocupacion de los ninos por preservar este sitio natural, aun a su corta edad a ellos les incomoda ver el basurero en el que se han convertido los alrededores de esta Fuente de agua y les surge una preocupacion por evitar y reducer la contaminacion que la naturaleza ha sufrido

Maya: Tela ju beyta in ilkon bix yanik juntuul ch’u’upal tan in yilik bis yanik le sojol te lumo’ , le sojola’ tan u k’askunsik le ts’o’onot yan tu kajalo’obo, ba’ax tin ilone’, le ch’u’upalaloba ku tukliko’ob ba’ax ka’abet u betko’ob tial u kanantko’ob. Le ch’upalalo’oba keex chichno’ob ku na’atko’ob, ma ka’abet u pulko’ob sojol te tso’onoto tumen u ku’uchi tu’ux ku ch’ako’ob ja’, le metik ku yako’ob k’a’abet u kanantko’ob yo’olal mu p’aata jump’eel kuuchi tu’ux ku ts’a’akajal sojol.

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We are just finishing up photovoice and have been hearing some amazing stories! Here is one in English, Spanish and Maya told to us by a student from Cuncunul, Yucatan, Mexico.


This story is about the relationship between the town's church and the cenote (both are seen in the picture). One local myth, re-told by our student's family recounts the tale of a secret passageway connecting them with incalculable treasure. Before a field is burned or on the third of May, according to the tale, if people see the treasure, they will have a good harvest throughout the year.

In Spanish (En Español): Según dicen mis familiares que cuentan en al leyenda que entre la inglesia y el cenote hay in pasadizo secreto con in Tesoro incalculable. Y cada 3 de Mayo o una noche antes se quema una casa "La gente cree que hay dinero enterrado en esos terrenos," dice el primer edil, esto si alguien logra verlo tendra Buena cosecha por todo in ano y le ayudara en sus siembras.

In Maya (Ich Maya): Ku tzikbatik in laak’obe yetel in yume yan ul p’e tzikbal yok’ol e dzonot yan te u chumukil e kajo, tu kilich najil e k’ujo yan un p’e beej ku bisik takte yanal e dzonoto ichile bejo yan tak’in mukani jach man yaab. Ich u oxpel kinit e uinali e Mayoo ua tu akbil tu kaapel kinnile kana u yele u p’el naj beyo ku yalale yan e takin mukano, kanan u jokol uu p’e chaan k’aak ku tochbal yosal u yilal e takino yetel maax ku yilike ku utztal u kuuxtal tu lakal e jaabo.

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My wife and I were fortunate to be able to explore a cenote last year while in Mexico. It's so cool to read here about the connection between them and the Maya and current people.

Yesterday we had our second photovoice session. We were able to have a great discussion about the pictures that the school kids took during the first session. Some interesting themes that came up were the legends and culture surrounding the cenotes in the town; the natural history, such as rock formations; and contamination. The students taught us a lot about how the cenotes are part of their ancestors and are a central part of their culture and community. There are many interesting stories surrounding the cenotes as well, such as the serpent that protects the gold inside or the sacrifices that happened there. The students were also very concerned about the contamination--for example, they told us that people should appreciate and conserve the water inside the cenotes.


After our discussion we handed out surveys to the school kids to take another look at the general thoughts about the cenotes in their town, which also resulted in great answers such as the one pictured below. Along with the global investigators and UNO students, the school kids then went back to the cenote to take more pictures--this time focusing on one of the major themes.

Translation: "For me the cenotes are life and joy" C: know them E: Explore them N: it's never too late O: never forget them T: we should always take care of them E: Instead of contaminating them

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We work a lot...and sometimes that means we have to "test the waters" ourselves! Time for a dip in the cenote Hubiku near Temozon, Yucatan!


Trabajamos mucho… ¡y a veces eso significa que tenemos que “probar las aguas” nosotros mismos! ¡Tiempo para un chapuzón en el cenote Hubiku cerca de Temozon, Yucatán!

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Our photovoice activities are well underway! Our Global Investigators from the University of North Carolina worked alongside our students from the Universidad de Oriente to help us with instruction. Together with school kids we went out to take pictures of the local cenote. This Friday we meet to discuss the images!


¡Nuestras actividades de fotovoz están bien en curso! Nuestros investigadores globales de la Universidad de Carolina del Norte trabajaron junto a nuestros estudiantes de la Universidad de Oriente para ayudarnos con la instrucción. Junto con los niños de la escuela, salimos a tomar fotos del cenote local. ¡Este viernes nos reunimos para discutir las imágenes!

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Early this week we visited the beautiful cenotes "Palomitas" and "Agua Dulce" in the town of Yalcoba. These amazing cenotes are wonderful reminders of how precious cenotes are to the people of Yucatan. These cenotes each serve as fresh water sources (for bathing, etc.) for the community and also function as tourist destinations--therefore serving as a vital economic resource. We were greeted by warm welcomes in both Spanish AND Maya!


A principio de esta semana visitamos los hermosos cenotes “palomitas” y agua dulce” en la cuidad de Yalcoba. Estos increíbles cenotes son maravillosos recordatorios de cuán preciados son los cenotes para la gente de Yucatán. Cada uno de estos cenotes sirven como fuentes de agua dulce (para bañarse, etc.) para la comunidad y también funcionan como destinos turísticos—por lo tanto, sirviendo como un recurso económico vital. ¡Fuimos saludados por cordial bienvenidas en Español y Maya!

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Wow! So beautiful, Khristin. Love this photo.

Did you know that one of the most famous cenotes in Yucatan features sacred offerings? Over the weekend our team visited the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, an ancient Maya site that rose and fell between 900 and 1200A.D./C.E. Offerings that were thrown into the Sacred Cenote range from possible human sacrifices to the gold masks of the feathered serpent deity Queztalcoatl/Kukulcan (seen here).


These offerings came to light during the early 20th century when Massachusetts's- born Harvard professor Edward H. Thompson purchased the plantation on which Chichen Itza was located and dredged the Sacred Cenote.

Today, tourists can still visit the Sacred Cenote and even see the equipment used by Thompson, over one hundred years ago, to recover objects from the cenote's silent depths.

¿Sabías que uno de los cenotes más famosos de Yucatán presenta ofrendas sagradas? Durante el fin de semana nuestro equipo visitó el Cenote Sagrado en Chichen Itzá, un antiguo sitio maya que se elevó y cayó entre 900 y 1200 A.D./C.E. Las ofrendas que fueron lanzados en el Cenote Sagrado van desde posibles sacrificios humanas hasta las máscaras de oro de la deidad de la serpiente emplumada Queztalcoatl/Kukulcan (visto aquí).

Estas ofrendas salieron a la luz durante los primeros años del siglo XX cuando el profesor, nacido en Massachusetts, de Harvard Edward H. Thompson compró la plantación en la cual Chichén Itzá fue localizado y dragó Cenote Sagrado.

Hoy en día, los turistas todavía pueden visitar el Cenote Sagrado e incluso ver el equipo utilizado por Thompson, hace más de cien años, para recuperar objetos de las profundidades silenciosas del cenote.

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Meetings with university students and co-director Dr. Ivan Batún of the Universidad de Oriente are underway! We ended our first week with this "meeting of the minds" during which time we discussed how we would proceed with photovoice, our preliminary initiative. For this initiative, we will split up into smaller groups and head out into communities around Valladolid, Yucatan. There, we will give students in the schools cameras. Their task is to take pictures of their town's cenotes. After that, we will print and exhibit the photos and the students will tell us what each photo means to them. This way, we begin our project with a better sense for what 11-14 year old youth already think about cenotes--from their own perspective. Stay tuned for photovoice pictures!


¡Las reuniones con los estudiantes universitarios y el co-director Dr. Ivan Batún de la Universidad de Oriente están en curso! Terminamos nuestra primera semana con esta "reunión de la mente" durante la cual discutimos cómo proceder con la fotovoz, nuestra iniciativa preliminar. Para esta iniciativa, nos dividiremos en grupos más pequeños y saldríamos hacia las comunidades alrededor de Valladolid, Yucatán. Su tarea es tomar fotos de los cenotes de su pueblo. Después de eso, imprimiremos y expondremos las fotos y los estudiantes nos dirán lo que cada foto significa para ellos. De esta manera, comenzamos nuestro proyecto con un mejor sentido de lo que jóvenes de 11-14 años ya piensan de cenotes, desde su propia perspectiva. ¡Manténgase atentos a las fotos de la fotovoz!

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Preparation Stage

Yesterday the team headed out to meet teachers and school directors in communities around Valladolid, Yucatan. We also scouted out the town cenotes!


Ayer el equipo salieron a reunirse con maestros y directores escolares en comunidades alrededor de Valladolid, Yucatán. ¡También exploramos los cenotes de la cuidad!

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Heading to Yucatan to start the first on-the-ground phase of the project! Cameras (and coffee) in hand for our photovoice element. Yucatan students and teachers will use the cameras to take pictures of and about cenotes in their communities. These photographs will encourage dialog about cenotes between students, teachers and the rest of our team!


¡Saliendo a Yucatán para comenzar la primera fase en el terreno del proyecto! Cámaras (y café) en la mano para nuestro elemento de la fotovoz! Los estudiantes y maestros de Yucatán usarán las cámaras para fotografiar de y sobre los cenotes en sus comunidades. ¡Estas fotografías fomentará el diálogo sobre los cenotes entre estudiantes, profesores y el resto de nuestro equipo!

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Very cool Khristin! Can't wait to see more from your team :)

Very cool Khristin! Can't wait to see more from your team :)

Very cool Khristin! Can't wait to see more from your team :)

Expedition Background

The ultimate goal of this project is to develop sustainable local and regional educational programs and community activities that highlight cenotes and promote deeper understanding of this critical and fragile resource. Our team will train local university students in Yucatan to become ambassadors for cenotes. Together with other expedition team members, our ambassadors will reach out to local teachers and students in Yucatan. By focusing on students and young adults we will reach a cohort that is beginning to develop critical thinking skills and a social consciousness.


To date, our team has successfully obtained National Geographic funding to undertake the exhibition. Currently, we are busy planning teaching modules centered around the oral history and folklore, science and safety, archaeology and heritage of cenotes. We have selected our advisory board composed of K-12 teachers, archaeologists, engineers, art historians, professors and governments officials and are in the process of selecting university students from Valladolid, Mexico to serve as our Yucatan student ambassadors. Our ambassadors, along with members of our advisory board will begin leading our teaching modules with local Yucatan teachers and students next month!

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El objetivo final de este proyecto es desarrollar programas educativos locales y regionales, y actividades comunitarias que resalten los cenotes y promuevan una compresión más profunda de este recurso crítico y frágil. Nuestro equipo entrenará a estudiantes de la universidad local en Yucatán para convertirse en embajadores de cenotes. Juntos con otros miembros del equipo de la expedición, nuestros embajadores se acercarán a los maestros y estudiantes locales en Yucatán. Enfocándonos en estudiantes y adultos jóvenes llegaremos a una cohorte que comienza a desarrollar habilidades de pensamiento crítico y una conciencia social.

Hasta ahora, nuestro equipo ha obtenido con éxito la financiación de la National Geographic para emprender la exposición. Actualmente, estamos ocupados planeando módulos docentes centrados en la historia oral y el folclore, la ciencia y la seguridad, la arqueología y el patrimonio de los cenotes. Hemos seleccionado a nuestro consejo consultivo compuesto por maestros de K-12, arqueólogos, ingenieros, historiadores de arte, profesores y funcionarios públicos y estamos en el proceso de seleccionar a estudiantes universitarios de Valladolid, México para servir como nuestro Yucatán estudiantes embajadores. Nuestros embajadores, junto con los miembros de nuestro consejo consultivo, ¡comenzarán a conducir nuestros módulos docentes con maestros y estudiantes locales de Yucatán el próximo mes!

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Khristin, this look very interesting. Will you be diving in the cenotes at all?

Hi Madeleine! Sorry for the late response, I was away at a conference. We will be working with local communities and professional diving teams in a few ways! We are also going to be relying on ROV units to explore some of the cenotes and their caverns! Stay tuned for more pictures and updates. Most of our work on the ground will begin next months!

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