Around the World in 7 Days: High School Students Explore Biosphere 2

By Kelly Davis 

Imagine being able to explore Earth’s many habitats in just one week. That’s what a group of high school students will get the chance to do this summer when they travel to Oracle, Arizona to spend a week working with researchers inside Biosphere 2, a 3-acre, sealed-off environment meant to be a microcosm of Earth, with its own ocean, rainforest, desert, wetlands and savannah grassland. The trip, which runs from June 18 through 25, is part of Extension’s Global Environmental Leadership & Sustainability program and aims to give high school students the tools needed to be environmental stewards.

Such a program, with its focus on exploring the causes and effects of climate change, arguably couldn’t be timelier. But Ed Abeyta, the program’s director and assistant dean of community engagement at UC San Diego Extension, said as much as he’d like to take some politicians on a tour of Biosphere 2, it’s not about politics. “We let kids draw their own conclusions,” he explained.

Biosphere 2 has a fascinating, complicated history, some of which students will learn about. But that’s just a small part of the program, where the emphasis is on personal growth and hands-on scientific research. Abeyta described the experience as “transformational.” We chatted with him about program and why it offers students such a valuable learning experience.

You need to see it to understand it.
Biosphere 2 really is a world under glass. Where else can you experience a true rainforest without actually traveling to a rainforest? “It doesn’t even do justice to just talk about it,” Abeyta said.

A short documentary about the facility offers a glimpse of what the massive glass-and-steel structure offers. Abeyta described it as being kind of like Jurassic Park (minus the dinosaurs), where no expense was spared to create the seven unique biomes.
It’s a chance for kids to get off the grid.
There’s a no cellphones, personal laptops or iPads allowed policy. That might sound like torture for a teen, but it’s critical to getting the most out the program, which uses the Social Change Model to teach students to become effective leaders. And effective leadership requires the ability to connect and communicate with others.

“It’s this moment where participants really have to talk to the other students,” Abeyta said. “When you don’t have the interruption and you’re not surrounded by noise, the real take-away is you have a moment to reflect and see the world differently.”

Matt Damon’s character in "The Martian" would totally dig Biosphere 2.
Biosphere 2’s original purpose was to see if there was a way to sustain human life on other planets. While the original experiment was a bit of a failure—though a fascinating one—the current iteration is closer to the founding vision. It includes a “Landscape Evolution Observatory,” where scientists are studying how to turn nonliving substrate into fertile soil, kind of like potato farm in The Martian.

“Fiction or not, the elements of going to another planet and being able to set up shop and grow your own food and trying to set up a place that is inhabitable, that is the next frontier,” Abeyta said. “It’s setting the foundation for us to break free of our atmosphere.”

The ultimate take-away is pretty huge.
Biosphere 2 demonstrates the fragility of our own ecosystems. While the goal is to keep the facility’s biomes self-sustaining, if something goes wrong, scientists can manipulate the environment to re-achieve equilibrium. For Biosphere 1—the Earth—a similar quick-fix isn’t so easy.

“We only get one try,” Abeyta said. “We need to understand the fact that our decisions have consequences, and if we can learn anything from Biosphere 2, it’s that this planet’s a lease and we have to negotiate well.”

Learn more about the Global Environmental Leadership & Sustainability and UC San Diego Academic Connections programs online, or drop us a line with questions at

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