© 2023 WMRA and WEMC
WMRA : More News, Less Noise WEMC: The Valley's Home for Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Local Spanish-language science class goes subterranean

Adamek_Grand Caverns.jpg
Bob Adamek
Harrisonburg High School students admire the cave formations as Professor Ángel Garcia, Jr. (center, background) points out various features.

Editor's note, February 2, 2023 — Grammatical and spelling edits have been made to the Spanish transcription thanks to WMRA's Sylvia Whitney Beitzel.

A group of local high schoolers got an exclusive tour of Grand Caverns last week. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sounds of group walking through cave]

Grand Caverns, located in the eponymous town of Grottoes, advertises itself as the oldest continually operating show cave in the country, having opened in 1806. Some of the most recent visitors to admire its stalactites, columns, and draperies were 21 students in Harrisonburg High School Teacher Erich Sneller's environmental science class. It's taught entirely in Spanish, which is many of the students' first language.

Randi B. Hagi
Garcia addresses the group before entering the cavern.

ÁNGEL GARCIA, JR.: Tengan cuidado con sus cabezas …

James Madison University Professor Ángel Garcia, Jr. led the tour – repeating some parts of it in English. Here, he pointed out a horizontal line that ringed the room several feet above the cave floor.

GARCIA: Y esta línea continua … This is called the Stillwater Room, and this one, this is really interesting because it has a layer of calcite that is surrounding the whole pool, right? And this layer of calcite is horizontal, but also there is another dimension that is thickness. Basically what we find here … we see a permanent, semi-permanent flooding of this room.

One student had been to a cave in Honduras before – the rest said it was their first time going subterranean. They were very interested in the people who had signed the cave walls in centuries past – which Garcia explained is now illegal. Then they wanted to know how much jail time they would get for it.

STUDENT: ¿Cuánto tiempo te meten por eso? [laughter]

GARCIA [laughing]: ¡Muy buena pregunta! ¡¿Tiene sentido firmarla y pasar preso?!

They were a little disappointed to find out it could be up to five years.

GARCIA: Creo que la mayor pena son cinco años de carcel.

Randi B. Hagi
One of the orejones, or cave shield formations, protrudes from the wall at the upper right corner.

STUDENTS: gasping, laughing

But some claimed they were willing to risk it.

GARCIA: Wait, wait, wait – ¡¿ ustedes quieren pasar cinco años por poner su nombre en una cueva?!

STUDENTS: ¡Sí! ¡Yo, si!

Teacher Erich Sneller has taken students on summer caving trips before, but this was the first time he was able to work it into the curriculum. I caught up with him a few days later as he drove home from school.

ERICH SNELLER: The amount of geology that you can study in a cave is amazing. When you want to learn more about, say, past climates, you can study stalactites and cut them apart and study isotopes of oxygen. … They are intriguing ecosystems in that they maintain a constant temperature and humidity year round. … Of course, there's the interest that I have with humans having lived in caves for thousands of years and found refuge in caves. Some of the oldest artwork in the world … is preserved in caves.

Many of his students have just recently moved to the United States and Harrisonburg, and Sneller hopes that experiences like this help them build a connection to the local environment.

SNELLER: What I really hope for them to get a sense of is not just what's going on on the surface, but to see the whole universe beneath their feet!

Back at the cave, the Aguilera Feliz sisters, who are in ninth grade, told me their favorite parts of the tour.

Randi B. Hagi
Keily and Keidy Aguilera Feliz are ninth graders at Harrisonburg High School.

KEILY: Cuando hablaron de los orejones … porque me parece interesante.

KEIDY: Enseñando las firmas, y explicándolas. Solo, creo que solo eso.

Keily liked the "orejones," or cave shield formations which resemble big, flat ears, and Keidy enjoyed talking about the historical signatures. Only one of them admitted to being scared during the tour's 10 seconds of total cave darkness, but I won't say who.

Garcia asked everyone to be completely quiet when he turned off the lights, which was challenging for the teens.

GARCIA: Por diez segundos, vamos a hacer silencio. … Okay? Vamos a hacerlo. Una, dos, y tres.

[students exclaiming, laughing, shushing]

GARCIA: ¡Diez segundos! Diez segundos.

He told me afterwards that this was quite different from leading tours with his undergrad students in the geology and environmental science department.

GARCIA: It's just a mixture on how technical, how less technical … what are the things I think are going to be interesting for the group? … You try to still cover foundational and geological ideas, but try to give a little bit of an interesting twist that people can relate to.

Tours in English and Spanish can be booked by visiting grandcaverns.com.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.