What do one tropical canopy researcher, a Minnesota teacher, and a bunch of teenagers have in common?  On the surface, not much.  But dig a bit deeper, or rather climb a bit higher, and you will find a shared passion for exploring and understanding the intricacies of the Amazon rainforest canopy!

Researcher, Dr. Meg Lowman, and high school teacher, DC Randle, have joined forces to mentor the next generation of rainforest researchers and in the process are transforming the lives of Minnesota high school students.  Many of DC’s student have traveled with him to the Amazon and with the help of Meg, they have engaged in all sorts of inquiry based projects including herbivory (plant and animal feeding interactions) assessments, long term plant studies (leaf tagging), bromeliad and epiphyte studies, and more!  DC has given his students the opportunity to become apprentices to a top scientist like Meg and engage in authentic inquiry as they participate in important research in tropical ecology and biology.

It all began when Meg and DC met deep in the neotropical rainforest as guest faculty on a Jason Project, a virtual field trip which streamed live into classrooms around across the US.   Their mentoring partnership has had an enormous trickle-down effect and has made the Amazon come alive for hundreds of students!

For DC, having Meg as a mentor has allowed him to grow as a scientist in his own right.  He has participated in numerous field research projects, worked side by side with a diverse array of scientists,  served on scientific committees, and co-authored papers on tropical ecology.  Ultimately DC says, “I have become a better educator as a direct result of Meg.  My students have become better students of science and education as a result of me mentoring them in the same way Meg has mentored me.” 

What does a professional ecologist like Meg gain from this relationship?  Her work with DC has opened her eyes to the importance of engaging students in the real work of scientists and giving them first-hand experience with the magic of scientific inquiry.  Over the course of her partnership with DC, Meg has shifted part of her professional focus to K-12 education and is now incorporating this new understanding into her work as the director of the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh, NC.

The ripples of this amazing partnership don’t stop with Meg, DC, and a handful of select students.  Through their collaborative efforts, they are able to share and amplify their first hand experiences with research in the Amazon rainforest.   As DC and Meg will attest, in order to sustain these forests for future generations, the first key in doing so is education.  “Students and other interested people need first hand experiences and opportunities to see, investigate, and understand how the system works to better provide the information to sustain them for years to come.” says DC.  Fortunately for all of us, Meg, DC, and their students are doing just this as they spread the word through their schools, communities, and the greater scientific network!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!  Leave a reply below.  Have you been a mentor or a mentee?  How has that impacted your personal and professional life?

What do you do with a bug net, a vial of wintergreen essential oil, cotton swabs, and push pins, when you are in the middle of the Amazon rainforest?  If you are a curious explorer you design an experiment to investigate orchid bees of course!   Last summer that is exactly what happened when students and educators were set loose to design open-ended inquiry investigations of these fascinating and colorful hymenoptera.

male orchid bees taking the bait

Orchid bees are amazing, brilliantly colored little gems that buzz through rainforest clearings, light gaps, and canopies.  Male orchid bees are particularly fascinating because you can lure them into your line of sight using “scent baits.”  They go crazy for anything that smells like wintergreen, cinnamon, and eucalyptus.  Turns out they collect these scents and then, much like a perfumer, concoct a potent and alluring “eau de cologne” designed to attract as many female orchid bees as possible!  Setting up baits in the rainforest offers almost instant gratification – within minutes bees in iridescent blue, green, orange, and purple quickly make a bee-line for these precious aromatic compounds.  (Read More)

With a bare minimum of background information, our intrepid student researchers were given a pile of equipment and 20 minutes to design experimental questions related to orchid bee scent preferences.  WOW!  It was truly amazing to watch these students turn on and tune in!  The questions and ideas flew at a furious pace – references to the laws of chemistry, biology, and even physics were thrown into the mix.  Experiments from the simple to the sublime were set up around the ACTS field station and we expectantly sat back to wait for the arrival of orchid bees…and we waited…and we waited…and then we waited some more.  So much for instant gratification! Check out the video…this is what we hoped to observe!

With dark clouds gathering and the scent of rain filling the air, we were just about to give up hope when a suddenly several bees appeared at the baits.  We managed to net just one before the deluge began.  Back in the field lab, as the rain pounded down, we used a magnifying box to get an up close look at the beautiful emerald green bee we had captured.  For the remainder of the storm we discussed the ups and downs of science, the challenges of field biology, the inquiry process, and the importance of failure.  In this day and age, when answers are simply a “google” away, the lesson on perseverance and failure as a necessary part of the inquiry process was probably the most powerful.

At the end of the day as the skies cleared, the students were eager to try their luck as orchid bee wranglers once again.  As we headed to the canopy walkway, the scent of wintergreen wafted behind us as we carried our experiments to the tree tops.  Isn’t this what inquiry is all about?

The greatest question you can ask is WHY.”  This quote, pasted to the wall of the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies field station, drives so much of what we do in the Amazon. It keeps us honest as educators, researchers, facilitators, and learners. It is simple and profound. Three simple letters – w.h.y. – packed with so much power. For us, questions like this open the door to the universe – be it in a drop of water on the tip of a tropical leaf, the incredible camouflage of an Amazon katydid, or pondering how to engage participants in meaningful investigations of the Amazon.

Asking questions primes the pump of curiosity and being curious is what drives inquiry-based learning…and if there ever was a place that can ignite curiosity and inspire inquiry it is the Amazon!

In the Amazon I.N.Q.U.I.R.Y. is all about:

  • active INVOLVEMENT in the learning process via field studies and hands-on research projects.
  • constructing NEW KNOWLEDGE through personal encounters with the complex rainforest ecosystem.
  • uncovering new QUESTIONS behind each tree, under each leaf, and around each river bend.
  • seeking deeper UNDERSTANDING your role in a sustainable future for the rainforest.
  • developing an INQUISITIVE world view that opens the door to global understanding.
  • realizing solving RIGOUROUS scientific problems is fun and you can participate as a citizen scientist.
  • discovering YOURSELF as a learner as you stretch beyond your normal comfort zone.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION:  What does I.N.Q.U.I.R.Y mean to you?  How do you use inquiry to ignite curiosity? What makes you curious about the Amazon?