Jay as a middle schooler in 1995

If you are anything like tenacious Jay Blaine, you pester your mother for FOUR years until she makes it happen.  Now that is persistence!

As a middle schooler, Jay finally made it to the rainforest as a participant in one of our very first Amazon Rainforest Workshops, way back in 1995.

Flash forward eighteen years, and we are delighted to report that we serendipitously reconnected with Jay – now an artist and activist working in California.  Jay recently launched a wonderful new Facebook page called Rainforest Eye.  It is loaded with fantastic and inspiring rainforest images from around the world.  Jay is the first to acknowledge that his page wouldn’t be possible without the photographers.

Unlike many other Facebook “picture” pages, Jay is committed to celebrating the photographers behind the images – giving them the credit and recognition they justly deserve.  Many of the photographers he features, like Kurt Orion G  (South East Asia), Steve Parish (Australia), and Tracy Kidston (Amazon) are amazing naturalists who enhance their photos with fascinating natural history notes.

As Rainforest Eye continues to grow, Jay hopes his efforts will provide his fellow artists with mass exposure – helping to push their careers to the next level, while at the same time building rainforest awareness and appreciation through their beautiful and captivating images.

So, what sparked Jay’s fascination with rainforests?  It all began with his 3rd grade teacher and a unit on rainforests.  Jay was captivated by the images of camouflaged katydids, strangling figs, and howling monkeys.  As he and his classmates looked at all the animals that lived in the various layers of the rainforest, his mind reeled.  How could one place have so much life?  His third grade mind locked on a targetone way or another he would get to the rainforest!

Jay’s mom, Diane, tried to appease him with a glow-in-the-dark infographic of the rainforest, but that just wasn’t going to cut it.  Over the next four years they looked into a variety of rainforest experiences until Diane, a librarian, determined that the Amazon Rainforest Workshop offered the most educational learning opportunity for her son.  And off they went – down the Amazon in search of pink river dolphins, up in the canopy on one of the world’s first canopy walkways, and into the night on the prowl for snakes and tarantulas.  Jay?  Have you thanked your mom lately?

jay blaine photo2

Jay Blaine- visionary behind Rainforest Eye

As an adult, Jay is combining his passions for art, the environment, and outreach.  His Rainforest Eye Facebook page is just the beginning.  His long term goal is to create “Artists for the Environment” a non-profit that brings together artists from around the world in an effort to promote awareness about environmental issues.

Thank you Jay for the work you do and for sharing your story.  And a big THANK YOU to all the teachers out there who continue to spark the imaginations of their students by sharing the wonders of the rainforest in your classrooms…your efforts to raise awareness and appreciation can have amazing results.

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?


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!


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?

Rumpus in the Rainforest!

October 24, 2012

Experiencing the Amazon rainforest first hand is an incredible opportunity – and for some a lifelong dream.  Jon Strube, an elementary principal from Indiana, set his sights on the Amazon seven years ago and worked tenaciously to find a way to get there.  Last summer, Jon’s dream finally came true.  With the help of a grant from the Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program, Jon joined a lively group of educators on our 2012 Amazon Workshop for Educators.

And what a lively group it was!  We raised a rumpus as we joyfully explored the rainforest and as a result we came to understand that there are times when  you have to set aside the formalities of science and let your creative juices flow.  Sometimes viewing the Amazon through the lens of the arts and humanities makes the Amazon understandable in ways that a thousand data points cannot.  The same is true for the students in our classrooms!  Infusing our science lessons with a dash of art or a pinch of music is a great way to open the door to curiosity and wonder.

Jon is using his Amazon experience to do just that.  Next summer Jon will launch the first annual summer enrichment theatre camp for his students at Tzouanakis Intermediate School.  Principal Strube, along with TZ fine arts department educators, Dessa Frank and Carrie Hamilton, will bring to life the rainforest through the musical, The Rumpus in the Rainforest, by Bad Wolf Press. Jon will use his adventure in the Amazon and first-hand experience of the rainforest to infuse more knowledge and artifacts into the production.  The students of Tzouanakis Intermediate School will have the opportunity to explore the Amazon rainforest while they expand and enrich their musical and artistic craft all the while learning more about this exceptional natural resource and wonder.

Great work Jon!  We hope you can post a video clip of the production so we can see your students in action!

JOIN THE DISCUSSION!  How do you infuse the humanities into your science teaching?  How do you make the Amazon come alive in your classroom?