Research, education and storytelling, together with a group of National Geographic Explorers, landed last autumn on the remote islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa (6-7 thousand inhabitants each) to change the future of their young inhabitants, the youngsters who will be able to concretely contribute to deciding the destiny of the Mediterranean. The ‘mission’ is called RESPIRE (Research Educational Storytelling Project in Italian Remote Ecosystems) and was born in 2022, out of a desire to remedy the tangible lack of professional development opportunities for students on Italy’s smaller islands. Lampedusa and Pantelleria, in particular, were the most remote of the remote and with this project, funded by the National Geographic Society, 120 of their students, from middle and high schools, will see their perspectives change, breathing a new possible reality, present and future.
Inspiring, they will absorb science, experience, ‘natural vibe’ and previously unthinkable career possibilities, and then tell the story of the islands from their perspective, enhancing their biodiversity and documenting their health, exhaling.
RESPIRE on the islands
It all sounds very nice, but feasible? How? Since the start of the project, the young people involved have been exploring their territory through multidisciplinary research activities (from marine biology to botany, archaeology and geology) with a keen eye on the anthropogenic impact and the consequences of the climate crisis on different ecosystems, both marine and terrestrial. What they see, monitor and capture, they will then tell the world, with their point of view, becoming a fundamental – and now absent – bridge between the mainland and the islands, their communities and their natural treasures.
To initiate this valuable storytelling, professional photographer (and National Geographic Explorer) Marco Carmignan is organizing a special photography workshop, a real introspective path to learn how to best express oneself through this art. For the research activities, on the other hand, other Explorers (there are 15 in total involved) will provide the students with innovative research tools and new potential perspectives for their future professional development, both through lectures and, above all, with activities in the field.
Essential and fun, there is also no shortage of citizen-science moments in which young people personally contribute to the collection of scientific data for 6 different research strands. In common, they all aim to assess the anthropogenic and climatic impact on the islands, with very precise and concrete focuses on food security and dietary patterns (a world first!!), pollen distribution and the status of native woody flora. And then, the ones dedicated to the marine environment like the study of the beach profiles, with sediment and microplastic deposition, the study of the alien species, and local biodioversity, with a focus on Posidonia oceanica, an endemic marine plant of the Mediterranean. There will also be a focus on modern archaeology, to study the origins and nature of the plastic found stranded on the beaches of Lampedusa.
Some of these activities may also be ‘key’ because they could contribute to achieving the extension of Pantelleria’s National Park on land to the surrounding sea, hopefully giving its inhabitants, Italy, and the world a new, unique marine protected area.
RESPIRE & aspire
A lot of research, in contact with those who do it for a living and the nature that benefits from it, translated into everyday, fun and simple actions. This is exactly the way the RESPIRE team has chosen to show students on the two islands that there is also a future for them in STEM, education and storytelling.
“Working with young people is always a trump card: they are the adults of the future. Sensitising them at this age means making them grow up with a vision of their island projected towards its preservation,” explains Martina Capriotti, National Geographic Explorer, marine biologist and RESPIRE project leader: “I am sure that the decisions they make as adults will also take into account this experience and the environmental aspects we are trying to convey”.
Indeed, the ambitions of the project go far beyond the individual careers of the 120 young people involved. The team aims to turn them into ‘mindset changers’, making them the protagonists of a new paradigm of narration of the Italian minor islands. To change the world’s gaze on them and the approach that the very communities living there have to their destiny as a precious but neglected territory.
In two years of work, a precious legacy can be left behind: a change of pace and dress that the inhabitants seem to be looking at with curiosity at the moment. Both those directly involved by the young people with interviews (fishermen and farmers), and those watching as spectators at the great naturalistic fervor triggered by RESPIRE.
This wonderfully sustainable and promising horizon is accompanied by numerous challenges. The most difficult one is “being able to fit in effectively and at the same time harmoniously in an always very dense school curriculum in which it is by no means trivial to integrate novelties,” explains Michele Raggio, president of SeedScience, National Geographic Explorer and a leader of the project’s education team. “We are, in fact, working hard to make the educational activities as compatible as possible with the school timetable and curriculum”.
The future of RESPIRE and those who breathed the future
A complex experience, even in the day-to-day, and one to treasure because a project like RESPIRE is perfectly scalable and replicable, and not only on small islands like Lampedusa and Pantelleria. “The basic principles are set for small remote islands, but not only in a narrow sense. They also apply to islands in a broader sense, such as schools in small mountain communities,” Martina explains. She adds: “It would be great to replicate RESPIRE and extend it to other Mediterranean realities outside the Italian borders, together with explorers from other countries bordering the Mare Nostrum.
There is also the hope of seeing the two minor islands involved walk on their own legs, witnessing remotely the germination of what they have learnt to protect their heritage and enhance it. Functional in this perspective is the scientific research education kit with protocols, procedures and small materials for experiments that the project team will release to the partner schools. “They will be able to treasure them and continue the scientific activities even after the end, even without our direct support, in full autonomy, with a strong role played by the young people”.
We can remove the “if” right away, because the project team has already made a firm decision to rely on photographs and videos to document, enhance and publicise their activities. This decision, if taken on social networks, turns into a powerful storytelling strategy capable of amplifying every result achieved, making it resonate both within the community involved and in the rest of the ‘connected’ world.
Article by Marta Abbà with the contribution of Martina Capriotti and Michele Raggio.
Follow RESPIRE’s field activities on Instagram: @respire_science.