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Al Stenstrup

Al makes a new friend in the Amazon

Meet our newest faculty member, Al Stenstrup! We are thrilled to have Al on board for the 2013 Educator Academy. Al epitomizes what it means to be an experiential learner – embracing every day and every activity with endless energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity! When he is not out exploring the world, Al directs the development of Project Learning Tree’s curriculum materials and leads implementation of these materials across the country and internationally. In 2010, he received the award Outstanding Service to Environmental Education at the Global Level from the North American Association for Environmental Education for his work in 18 countries across the world. This year Al will be adding the Amazon to his list of international training sites! During the Academy, Al will use will use PLT’s  Forests of the World module and  Environmental Education Activity Guide as resources for helping our participants forge connections to the Amazon. We caught up with Al in between flights and asked him to share his take on place-based learning, Project Learning Tree (PLT), and his experience in the Amazon last summer.
It seems that place-based learning is all about forging connections. We all have different ways of forging connections to people and places. How do YOU connect with a new place? What things do you do that help you get a sense of things? Do you have “touchstones” that you seek out that help you make connections and gain perspective?

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Al making connections with Amazon school children

“Hmmmm…I’ve never really thought about that. Good question! When I think about all the places I’ve been around the world, the memories that are most vivid are those of the schools I’ve visited. I guess this would be my touchstone. I seek out opportunities to visit schools where ever I go. Schools give me a window into a community. These visits give me insights into a community’s history, its organization, its values…I guess this is my way of understanding and making connections to a place. Now you’ve got me thinking. I wonder what other people use as touchstones when visiting a new place.”
Do you think there is room for place-based learning in the new world of high stakes testing and the push for common core standards?
“Actually, you might be surprised to learn that the value of place-based learning is actually getting more, not less, attention these days. The latest draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) places a high value on connecting students to their local communities and environments and using this as a means to help the students make connections and deepen understanding. From my perspective, the biggest change coming from the NGSS is how science content is presented, not the content itself. Place–based learning ties in nicely to this fresh approach.”
Project Learning Tree (PLT) uses forests as a window for understanding larger environmental issues and aims to actively engage students in solving problems and making a difference. How do PLT activities help students move beyond factual awareness and into the realm of appreciation, wonder, and action?

“One of our goals at PLT is to help students learn HOW to think, not what to think. Certainly having factual background is important, but when you give students the chance to identify issues, look at other perspectives, conduct investigations, and find their own solutions – this is where the magic happens. Students feel empowered when their voices are heard and this leads to action. PLT strongly encourages students to propose solutions, but our ultimate goal is to have them take action. Teachers use PLT’s Forests of the World and our Environmental Education Activity Guide to help students gain perspective and propose solutions.  Our GreenWorks and Green Schools  take things to an even more active level and are great programs for actively engaging students in service-learning.”

You recently wrote a book about forests and included a chapter on the Amazon. Last summer you finally got to visit the Amazon in person. It was obvious that you were in a perpetual state of wonder. Did you gain any new perspectives?

Bonnie Gornie Peru 138“Well since I work for PLT, I am kind of a forest guy. You might be surprised to know that what struck me most was the water – the vastness, the flow – it was everywhere! We literally couldn’t take 50 steps without getting wet. Water drives everything, not only how the Amazon system works, but daily life for all the people that live there. The river is their highway. It’s their grocery. It’s interesting…I wrote a book about forests, and how they are a diminishing natural resource, so I went into the experience thinking about forests and trees and how they are being exploited. What I came away with was a new perspective on how the Amazon functions as a system – especially the connection between the forest and the water. I’m looking forward to getting back down there in July and expanding my perspective again. I just might need to write another book or at least a new chapter!”

Thanks for sharing Al! Can’t wait to join you in the Amazon next summer during the 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon!

 

Bags are packed, equipment checked, guidebooks read and re-read.  We are ready! We already know more than the average Joe about the Amazon.  If we were preparing for a test, we’d expect an A+.  But as the plane slips below the clouds, and we catch our first glimpse of the rainforest…a vast carpet of green with only the snaking curves of the Amazon River to give a sense of scale, we begin to realize we don’t really understand this place. This is the place that overwhelmed Charles Darwin, who once described it as “one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse.”  The PBS documentary movies describe it as crawling, slithering, clinging, and jumping with amazing wildlife – much of it unkown to science. This is the place we’ve been told is critical to the health of our planet…a place that is rapidly disappearing unless we take action..but we don’t have the first clue how to even begin…

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As travelers to the Amazon, we are fortunate to experience one of the world’s most astonishing and important ecosystems – the tropical rainforest. In preparation for this epic adventure, we have done our homework and can reel off the facts. We know that the world’s rainforests:

• support more than ½ of the world’s biodiversity;
• provide new medicines, foods, and other products of global economic value;
• impact local, regional, and global climates-protecting against floods, drought, and erosion;
• store vast amounts of carbon and help to mitigate global climate change;
• provide food and shelter to indigenous people;
• and are a source of inspiration and wonder.

We know as the world’s largest intact rainforest, the Amazon is a critically important global resource.  We’ve read that it is unrivalled in its scale and its complexity. We might even know that it makes up of 50% of the world’s remaining rainforest and encompasses an area greater than the continental USA.

If we are really serious about our studies, we also know that the Amazon harbors least 10% of the word’s known biodiversity, with new species being discovered at the rate of 1 every 3 days (more than 1,200 new species in the last decade). We know that the Amazon River system accounts for more than 15% of the world’s fresh water and its forests store more than 90 billion metric tons of carbon. We can even state with some confidence that approximately 350 ethnic groups are sheltered by its forests and sustained by its waters – and that a few “uncontacted” groups still exist.

GREAT! We can recite all these facts and more. Surely we deserve an A+ and can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. But wait…what job is well done? Has our fact finding led to something greater? Has it made a difference? Have we forged any kind of connection to this place will move us beyond factual recall and into the realm of inspiration, wonder, and action?

Last week we introduced the topic of place-based learning and how it can be used to move us beyond factual awareness and into active participation and deep understanding. In Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change, Mitchell Thomashow, a place-based education guru, suggests that to be actively engaged in understanding a place you must acquire

“…a range of facilities – the willingness to plunge your senses into the living landscape, the ability to ask good, scientific questions and develop approaches to finding empirical answers; the imaginative capacity to use the natural world as inspiration for artwork, photography, stories, essays, music, and poetry; the open-mindedness and reflective ability to be perennially engaged by the wonder, insight, and meaning derived of from your observations.”

These are the ingredients which will open the doors to understanding a place – even a place like the Amazon.

We are looking forward to “plunging into the living landscape” of the Amazon this summer, armed with the facts, but ready to ask good questions, ignite our imaginations, and engage with wonder. We are ready to get that A+ in Amazon 101!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION! Leave a reply below. Have you been to the Amazon? Are you going? What questions do you have? What do you want to know more about? How do you make meaning in new and different places and situations?

Ahhh…Amazonia.  A magical word that conjures up images of snaking rivers, soaring trees, and strange wildlife.  Surely if there is a place that can inspire wonder and curiosity, it is this.  And yet…many visitors struggle to make sense of it all, to put it into perspective, to find a scale that makes it understandable and manageable, to find a way to meaningfully connect.  It seems that many find it difficult to immerse themselves and fully experience the world right in front of them.

Now imagine if you were blind.  How would you begin to understand and connect to this strange new world without the sense of sight?  I recently finished A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts, a remarkable book about a remarkable man who traveled – completely blind to some of the most remote and wild regions of the world – often by himself.  Needless to say, it got me thinking – and questioning! 

How does one typically develop a sense of a place?  How do I connect with the places I visit every day or once-in-a-lifetime?  How do others connect?  What ways of making connections are overlooked or under-utilized? Does a deepening sense of place lead to action? involvement? As educators and naturalists, what is our role in helping our students develop a “sense of a place” and what implications does this have for teaching and learning?  How can we facilitate total immersion in a place?

Total Immersion of 2012 Amazon Educators

Total Immersion of 2012 Amazon Educators

According to the Center for Ecoliteracy, place-based learning begins with asking questions such as, “Where am I? What is the natural and social history of this place? How does this place fit into the larger world?”

IMG_3602All great questions, but it seems to me, as stated, they barely scratch the surface.  The real power of place-based learning comes when these questions are used to not only develop a student’s awareness of the world around them, but to deepen their understanding that they are active participants and not passive observers of the places they live and the places they visit.   Planting and nurturing this sense of awareness, this personal responsibility to a place, will allow real and lasting transformation to take root.

As we prepare for our upcoming 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon, we will be using these Vital Venture tips for getting started with place-based learning to focus the development of our field sessions.  You can use these just as easily in your own classroom or own backyard!

  • Make it personal. Make personal connections to your community and environment through research, personal reflection, and exploration.
  • Find out what is going on.  Identify local issues or ongoing projects related to concepts you are studying in the classroom or exploring in the field – “real world” examples provide context, life, and meaning.
  • Find out who your local “experts” are. Deepen understanding by engaging with local professionals from a variety of backgrounds and ask them to share their perspectives on the issue at hand.
  • Investigate. Engage in independent, personalized research and enlist the support and guidance of the “experts” in your community.
  • Take action.  Apply your learning and serve your community. Work with community members to help solve a local problem.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!  Leave a reply below. How do you connect to the place you call home or the places you’ve visted?  How do you use place-based learning in your curriculum?