2016 GAIA Czech Research Camp

Wednesday, November 9
Day 1

12 sleepy eyed WBAIS GAIA students together with GAIA directors Dr. Stuart Fleischer, Mary Wescott, Margret Ellwanger and ornithologist Dr. Motti Charter gathered at Ben Gurion Airport in the wee hours of the morning and checked in for the flight to Prague.

As always, upon arrival we were warmly welcomed by our Czech friends from Gymnázium Arabská and Gymnázium Botičská, hopped on the bus and went off to this year’s destination, the Moravian Karst region around the Czech Republic’s second largest city, Brno.

The fruits of our long term, systemic cooperation are more evident each year. For one, the students from all three schools have meanwhile formed long term friendships and greeted, mixed and mingled from the first moment we entered the bus. Notable also, the Czech students increasingly communicated with much greater ease in English with everyone from WBAIS.

At the end of the three-hour bus ride through gorgeous countryside, we arrived at our camp in Jedovnice, where we were assigned into little camping style bungalows, four persons per bungalow. Luckily, the bungalows had heating. The weather was below freezing, our noses were red, and even the Czechs shivered.

We had an hour to unpack and then gathered for our evening hike around the lake. It was dark outside, the air crisp and clear. There was no light pollution and thus we could fully appreciate the twinkling stars. The more astronomically gifted among us excitedly pointed out Mars, the red planet. Even though we marched around the lake with great speed, Botičská teacher Jiří Ševčík took time to pick up leaves and categorized from which type of tree they had fallen . We also learned some history about the nearby little town.

By the time we return to camp, everyone had a healthy appetite, which was deliciously satisfied by warm soup, cabbage salad, chicken and rice. Then there was an hour for the Czech students to dot the last i’s and cross the last t’s for their evening presentations about the Moravian Karst, its flora and fauna.

Arabská and Botičská students gave a solid overview of the region, which made us aware what to look for in the coming days. Then everyone bumbled happily back to their bungalow and dropped into bed exhausted from a long day of travel, hiking and presenting. Well done, DAY1.

Thursday, November 10, 2016
Day 2

Waking up and being greeted by freshly fallen snow got everyone off to a good start on Day 2. In no time the group finished a hearty breakfast and boarded the bus that dropped us off at the base of the Punkva Caves in the Moravian Karst. Well prepared by last night’s briefings, the students took note of limestone caves and identified trees by their fallen leaves along the uphill hike. In less than two hours of hiking, they reached the entrance point for the magical underground world of the Punkva caves.

With the help of a guide and calling upon our imagination, we meandered through various “rooms” , creatively named the “Turkish Graveyard”, the “Church Organ” and last not least, the romantic highpoint, “Romeo and Juliet”. If only the cave had not run dry, in about 700 years from now, Romeo and Juliet would have been united forever!

Leaving tragedy behind, a steep climb led to the watery part of the spelunking adventure. We entered boats that navigated through greenish waters to the bottom of the Macocha Gorge. There we were introduced to the legend of the evil stepmother who attempted to throw her stepson to his death, only to see the boy rescued and herself thrown down into the 300-meter-long gorge. Onward, we returned to daylight and continued the climb to the top of the gorge.

While hiking from the top of the Gorge back to the bus, Botičská teacher Jiri Ševčík made a great find. Ever the eagle-eyed botanist, he spotted what looked to the untrained eye deceptively just like another dangly, wispy weed whose leaves had fallen to the ground. Nothing could have been further from the truth. This was the archaic forbearer of the common house hold carrot! Quite remarkable, how such a non descriptive above-the-ground plant , over the duration of a thousand years , was cultivated into our familiar bright yellow-orange root vegetable.

The find led to a discussion about genetic modifications in our day and age, and how much sooner modern plant geneticists could have brought about this transformation. The teacher’s unexpected find became a perfect introduction for Day 3, the upcoming visit to the Museum in Brno , devoted to Johann Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics.

Leaving plants, geological limestone formations, fauna and flora behind, the group turned its attention to the works of ancient and modern man. Our bus stopped at the “Bull’s Cave”, a prehistoric sacrificial burial site of an apparently very important person. At his side lay the remains of 40 servants, who were sacrificed at the time of his death to provide further services to him upon entering the afterworld.

A short ride down the hill from Bull Cave, we explored the hamlet of Abramov, regionally renowned for its blast iron furnace and accompanying iron mill, next door to a Technological Museum. Archeological findings beginning with the Hallstattzeit, documented “Man’s Story of Working with Iron “ up through when Germanic tribes introduced advanced metal working skills, culminating in the the development of a proprietary nineteenth century process which became unique throughout Europe.

The day was rounded out with a stop at a very old, beautiful church, which to this day is a pilgrimage center in the otherwise predominantly secular Czech Republic.

In the evening, the students were given one hour after dinner, to prepare activities for an open ended evening of their choosing. It turned into a mixture of talent show, skits, singing and dancing. Memorable moments included the teacher’s skit about “class with a substitute teacher”, which brought down the house with laughter. Our Czech hosts also did a great job teaching WBAIS students a folk dance called the “Mazurka”. At close of the evening, one thing was certain: GAIA’s got talent!


Friday, Nov 11

Two days of invigorating field work prepared the GAIA students for the Anthropos Museum and Mendel Museum in Brno.

The museum in honor of the Father of Genetics, Johann Gregor Mendel, was small, yet captured well his spirit and scientific endeavors. Our Czech hosts had also arranged for a lecture about his life and work, held in the spacious room that served the Augustinian monks of Mendel’s day as dining hall.


Mendel, a gentle genius whose passions were rooted in his desire to find ways to help society and his fellow man, was undeterred when his contemporaries were not ready for his discoveries. He diligently searched for principles of plant heredity, in order to grow better and superior offspring. Likewise, his experiments with bees aimed to ease the work of the bee keeper just like his studies of the weather sought to assist farmers in timing work in the fields. Confidently he would state : “My time will come”

Born into a poor peasant family, nevertheless deeply interested in agriculture, horticulture, beekeeping and meteorology, it appeared there was no opportunity for Mendel’s schooling. His perseverance prevailed and slowly opened doors, especially after he was accepted to the Brno Augustinian monastery. As a monk, he served at hospital, took over an experimental garden and taught at the grammar school in Znojmo- even though he did not pass the exam for teacher qualification. Nevertheless, he studied mathematics, physics and natural sciences in Vienna. Upon returning to Brno, he meticulously carried out experiments in the Abbey Garden, which he published more than ten years later as findings on plant hybridization.

Equipped with details about Mendel’s life and work, and a list of questions provided by the Czech teachers, the students formed work groups, and searched purposefully for answers to their research questions in the museum’s displays and short videos.

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From Mendel’s Museum, it was only a short drive to the Anthropos Museum, which focused on the oldest geological history of Europe. Here we were greeted by Brno native, Voita Honek, a former Czech GAIA student. Voita, the perfect alumnus, had participated in every GAIA research trip offered throughout his high school years. Even though he graduated from Arabska in the spring and now was enrolled at Brno University as a student of biotechnolgy, he took time out of his busy lecture schedule to join us for the exploration of the museum. Voita personified the warm and enduring relations between WBAIS and our two Czech partner schools. He even
voiced his desire to deepen his relationship to the land of Israel, by seeking an internship next summer break with an Israeli company. It all began with GAIA!

In the basement exhibition of the Anthropos, there was a fine selection of oil paintings depicting the age of dinosaurs. The students also enjoyed a well designed animated movie about their extinction.

Perhaps inspired by the artistry of dinosaur renderings, perhaps watching some students getting creative with a paleontologic bone puzzle, maybe even walking through an Evolution of Man exhibit - something clearly sparked Maddie Kroell’s creative energy. At the sight of the giant Mastodon, she spontaneously delivered a dance performance. Her enthusiasm was infectious and proved too much temptation for Ms. Wescott, who quickly fell in step with Maddie. Numerous Facebook posts as well as as Dr. Motti Charter’s 2016 GAIA video remain as

Upon leaving the Anthropos, the students were given time to briefly explore the center of Brno under the guidance of Voita. Then we returned to our campsite, had dinner, and an evening of power points with the student groups presenting their findings. The evening ended with a surprise birthday party for two WBAIS birthday girls. Festivities included singing Happy Birthday songs in Czech, Hebrew and English.

Many thanks to all our Czech friends, organizers and participants. We look forward to
continued collaboration and exploration next year.