Last summer the Educator Academy in the Amazon was fortunate to be featured in the Place-based Education edition of Green Teacher.  As we prepare for our 2017 program, we can’t wait to introduce the Amazon to a new group of teachers and help them create deeper global and local connections for themselves and their students. 

Think Locally; Explore Globally                                                                                                              by Christa Dillabaugh, Terri Hebert and Kelly Keena                                                                             Originally published in Green Teacher 110, Summer 2016

As the sun sinks below the treetops, the hum of an outboard motor becomes audible over the cacophony of jungle sounds that signal nightfall in the Amazon. Moments later, a small boat pulls into view and 28 educators from the United States clamber into the humid twilight at river’s edge. Gazing up at the rainforest, most are unaware they are about to be transformed – personally and professionally – through their deep exchange with this place called the Amazon.


For the next nine days, the Amazon will serve as teacher, mentor, and guide – equipping these educators to return to their classrooms with new perspectives on how to help their students make sense of their world. Learning in the Amazon favors inquiry, personal discovery, and the ability to ask good questions. It requires a holistic, multi-disciplinary lens to understand its complex past, present, and future. Its preservation calls for local engagement and global collaboration.

But is it really necessary to travel thousands of miles by plane and boat to reach a remote field station in the rainforest to accomplish this? After all, one of the most basic tenants of place-based education is to focus on the local rather than on distant places like the jungles of South America. This article will explore how an experience in the Amazon serves as a touchstone to better understand one’s place in the world.

The mere mention of the word Amazon conjures up images of snaking rivers and strange wildlife or “Save the Rainforest” t-shirts and fundraisers. The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, shelters more than 10 per cent of the planet’s known biodiversity, with new species still being discovered at the rate of one every three days. Its rivers and tributaries account for more than 15 per cent of the world’s fresh water and its forests store more than 90 billion metric tons of carbon. To say that the Amazon is a critical global resource is simply an understatement. These facts are brought to life for educators as they explore and experience this vital ecosystem for themselves.

But is that enough? One still might question how this first person experience with the Amazon translates into changes in instruction once the educators are back home. How does it provide educators with the transferable skills and new understandings needed to successfully forge global connections for their students?

terri-hebertFor the last four years, we have been seeking answers to these questions via the Educator Academy in the Amazon, a unique place-based professional development experience for K-12 educators set in a remote corner of Northeastern Peru. As we hike along rainforest trails, engage with local communities, and traverse the rainforest canopy, we use the principles of place-based education to explore, engage, and understand the Amazon and its connection to our home place. Through this intensive, coming-to-know experience, we uncover universal understandings about the complexity and vulnerability of ecosystems and how they connect to one another…

To access the full article, please go tohttp://greenteacher.com/think-locally-explore-globally/ and enter the password 109sped

To learn more about the 2017 Educator Academy and register please go to: http://www.amazonworkshops.com/educator-academy.html

or contact Academy Director, Christa Dillabaugh at christa@amazonworkshops.com

We are so pleased to include Project Learning Tree and their Forests of the World and EE Activity Guide activities as part of our Annual Educator Academy in the Amazon.

Here’s an inside look on how our faculty and past participants are using PLT to make connections!

AL STENSTRUP – former Director of Education for Project Learning Tree and current Co-director of the Educator Academy in the Amazon

DSC_0244For any PLT fans that have met or worked with Al, you know he epitomizes what it means to be an experiential learner – embracing every day, every activity, and every global adventure with endless energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity.  Now that he has ‘retired’ from PLT, he hasn’t slowed down one bit.  He travels the world promoting environmental education, green schools, and school gardens.  To say he is inspiring is an understatement!

We caught up with Al in between his travels and asked him to share his take on place-based learning, Project Learning Tree (PLT), and his experience in the Amazon these last few summers.

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?

 “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.”


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?

img_8698“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?

 “Well since I spent most of my career working  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 on my first visit to the Amazon, 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.  It might be time to write another book or at least a new chapter!”

We were so excited when Al joined our faculty in 2013 and thrilled that he has been with us ever since!

JENNIFER RICHARDSON – Class of 2013, Presidential Award Finalist, and Next Generation PLT Advisory Committee Member

philippines-2013-2364Jennifer Richardson is a champion of environmental education in Arkansas. As a classroom teacher, she used PLT with her fifth graders and led many school-wide greening efforts, including recycling, composting, and developing a nature trail. Jennifer joined us in the Amazon in 2013 and did an amazing job of using PLT and the Amazon to bring a global perspective to her classroom!

In 2013 I traveled to Peru to participate in an Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest. It was a life-changing adventure that provided me with a global perspective that really enhanced my teaching.   The experience helped me create awareness amongst my students about the connections between our local environment and the rainforest, and the effects of deforestation in the Amazon both locally and globally. 

Here are just a few examples of how I am used activities from PLT’s PreK-8 Guide to connect my students to my personal experience in the Amazon:

• Activity 21, Adopt a Tree – Students have adopted a tree on our nature trail which they will compare to trees in the Amazon.

• Activity 10, Charting Diversity – Students compare Arkansas’ native plants and animals to those found in the rainforest.

• Activity 15, A Few of My Favorite Things – Students investigate what things they use every day that come from the rainforest.

• Activity 17, People of the Forest – Students learn how forests provide local people with their basic needs, and they also learn about the Yagua tribe we visited with in the Amazon.

• Activity 22, Trees as Habitats – Students learn how plants and animals depend on trees, and I share my pictures from the Amazon to illustrate examples of how trees provide homes for the animals in the rainforest.

• Activity 28, Air Plants – Students connect the importance of the trees of the rainforest to oxygen production for the whole world.

As a result of these lessons and sharing my firsthand experiences, my students wanted to learn about actions they can take to help save the rainforest and ways to support the local people who depend on the rainforest for their livelihood.   They were so excited when I announced they would get to participate in EcoFest, an annual community outreach event in Conway, Arkansas that educates people in our community about ways they can live a more sustainable life. Students in the 4th and 5th grade Environmental Science Club conducted research and prepared facts cards for a booth that showed the global effects of deforestation in the Amazon. They created pledge sheets and a collection jar to raise money to help support a local rainforest school!


Now that’s the kind of transferable learning and teaching we like to see when participants return from the Amazon!

KIRSTEN FRANKLIN – Class of 2015/2016, Science Teacher, Instructional Coach, and PLT Facilitator

kirsten-2Kirsten has joined us in the Amazon not once but twice and has been a real advocate for the transformational impact of the Educator Academy in the Amazon!

After my first visit to the Amazon with the Educator Academy in 2015, I was inspired to take a PLT Facilitator’s training because, as a Teacher On Special Assignment for science and common core support, I wanted to be able to offer the training to teachers back in my district. So far, I have provided training to TK/K teachers on the Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood, which was received very well. Teachers felt it would support their FOSS unit on Trees and they loved all of child-centered, integrated activities.  I have a lot more trainings in mind and can’t wait to continue to share PLT with my school and district colleagues.

But there’s more!  I was so inspired by my personal experience in the Amazon in 2015, that I decided I needed my colleagues to share just how powerful this PD experience was.  I put together a group of four K-5 educators from our school district and together we joined the 2016 Educator Academy! 

This year, I am back in the classroom as a fourth grade teacher and I am incorporating PLT lessons to support science inquiry and outdoor learning for my grade level.  Some activities we have done so far are “Sounds Around” and “Schoolyard Safari” as part of some initial explorations of the schoolyard habitat. The activity “Then and Now” will help us with an up-coming school-wide “Elders’ Day” project where all of the classrooms interact with elders in the community in some way.  We will interview our elders about how the environment in our community has changed. As we go deeper into our watershed studies, Activity 48, “Field, Forest, and Stream”, and Activity 61, “The Closer You Look”, will help us collect some baseline data on a creek that runs along the backside of our campus. This baseline data will be important as we work with environmental education partners to develop better access to the creek for all students at our school.  Finally, Activity 96, ” Improve Your Local Place” will be part of our efforts to enhance and create wildlife habitat on our campus.

I am continuing to work on my site’s and our district’s K-12 Environmental Literacy plan, so PLT guides are part of the resources that will be listed for teachers to consider.

We are thrilled to have Kirsten as an adjunct faculty member of Educator Academy in the Amazon.  Her new passion for PLT, combined with her extensive knowledge about NGSS, and in-classroom experience will be a real asset to the program!kirsten

If you’d like to experience PLT in the Amazon and transform your teaching, we’d love to have you join us!  

The Educator Academy is held in the Peruvian Amazon July 1-11 each year.

Program Details   


Scholarships & Funding

Or call / email Academy Director, Christa Dillabaugh





Did you know that this week marked the FIRST EVER celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science?   It’s about time because today, more than ever, the world needs science and science needs women.

When we started digging into the statistics of women in science and hearing their stories, we decided to scrutinize our data to see just how many women and girls participate in our Amazon Rainforest Workshops.


81% of ALL of our Amazon Explorers are women and girls! 
71% of our Amazon Teacher Leaders are women! 
63% of our Student Participants are girls!  

So here’s to all the wild and wonderful women we have the privilege to work with!  Cheers to you who have resisted society’s norm, have pulled on your boots, put on your explorer hat, and jumped on a plane to go claim your place in the world of science, exploration, and discovery!

We want to hear your story!

  • What led you to be a scientist, a science teacher, an explorer?
  • Do you have a vivid memory of when first knew that you loved science?
  • Was there a significant mentor?
  • What words of advice do you have for other girl explorers and future scientists?
  • If you could ask women ‘jungle scientists’ a question what would it be?

Please share your thoughts in the comment box below and/or email Amazon Workshops Director, Christa Dillabaugh with your stories!  christa@amazonworkshops.com

2015 Amazon Workshops Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and its impact on their lives!  

Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

A rainbow. It was almost too sweet to be true.

I looked toward the east, over the endless green canopy of the rainforest, reveling in the upper air on my face. For the first time in days I felt I could spread my arms again and not feel so closed in between the trees. Now I stood atop them, next to my brother and one of my best friends, savoring one of nature’s most beautiful displays of color, light and joy.

We had reached our last new Lodge, the research station at the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies. After a morning of birding by boat, followed by lunch, we hiked through the jungle to the field station. ACTS is a slightly more rustic lodge, smaller than the previous two at which we had stayed, but it has one major feature that has made it the part of the trip I have most looked forward to: the canopy walkway. ACTS canopy walkway is several hundred feet of single-file planks rigged with netting and steel cable, linking the forest floor and several emergent trees high above the canopy. It was on Platform 6, the highest point of the walkway at nearly one-hundred twenty feet off the forest floor, that I now stood with Kaeo and Jack.

We were at ACTS to take advantage of being in the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet and execute the research projects we planned before our departure.  Several of our projects involved variation in the levels of the rainforest, and we would spend all of the next day  working on them. But for now, Raul and Lucio were taking us to the canopy walkway, to watch the sunset from the top of the world. We drew names out of a hat to see who would be on Platform 6, and mine, my brother’s, and Jack’s names came out. I tried to contain my excitement. I have been in or above the forest canopy thrice before–once on a similar walkway in Guatemala and twice on top of Mayan temples in the ancient city of Tikal. This one was different. I was in the rainforest, and this time I understood what that really meant.

photo credit:  A. Vooris, 2015

photo credit: A. Vooris, 2015

Lucio and Raul took us to the initial platform, a thatched floor on stilts about twelve feet off the ground. They invited us onto the first walkway, a narrow bridge with safety nets on either side rising to head-height. I hopped on and started walking. At first, the wobbling and slight rocking of the walkway made me nervous; I am not naturally inclined to heights unless there is a firm, preferably flat surface beneath my feet. But pretty soon I got the method down. Slowly we ascended, rising past the leaf-cloaked trees, their branches laden with the iconic epiphytes, or air plants, whose roots, depending on the species, sometimes stretch dozen of feet down. Most birdcalls only Lucio knew, but I did recognize one from my days in Guatemala. When we reached the canopy the Screaming Piha, a diminutive bird but the loudest one in the forest, threw its wolf-whistle call over the treetops, and I felt the aura of the upper rainforest settle over me like a gentle wind.

We spent that sunset on the highest walkways and platforms, a blazing ball of orange sinking beneath the horizon and setting the clouds aglow. Swallow-tailed Kites wheeled on thermals to the south. There was magic up there on Platform 6, a solitude but a connection to the forest around us. I think we all felt some of it as the sun went down.

Sun behind the Epiphytes photo credit:  A.Vooris, 2015

Sun behind the Epiphytes photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

On the way back, we visited the patch of forest hosting bioluminescent fungi. Raul took us a little off the trail next to a big emergent tree and asked us to shine our lights upward before turning them off. After a few seconds, we looked down. The floor was covered with glowing nodules of bioluminescence, like someone had taken stardust and shaken it amongst the roots. This place had more than one kind of magic, it seemed.

The next day, the rainforest lived up to its name. Up until now there had been little precipitation, but shaggy gray clouds rolled in on Wednesday and a locally-named “female rain,” short-lived but with something to say, soaked the field station. We still went birding on the walkway at 6:00, a few of us rejecting ponchos and letting the clean water wash off some of our stink, but most projects scheduled for being out in the morning holed up until lunchtime, hoping the rain would stop. It let up some, and most of us got solid data in to work on our projects. Kaeo poured sugar water on the floor to call in his ants. The butterfly groups compounded pictures and identified several species. I, with the help of Jesse, started to work with the birdcalls, using his recorder. Jesse has been with us the whole trip, and I haven’t talked about him yet simply because there hasn’t been enough room. He works with the Rainforest Trust, a Washington D.C. based group dedicated to creating parks and preserving the rainforest, and is with our group as a teacher and occasional guide. We met up with him in Miami, when he was wearing a T-shirt with the classic “evolution of man” silhouettes leading to a man hunched over a computer, with a caption reading “Something, somewhere went terribly wrong.” I liked him instantly. He showed me how to use his handheld recorder, which I took into the treetops to capture birdcalls so I could measure the frequency at different heights. Though my research project has evolved into a more “sounds of the rainforest” endeavor, with the local stories and lore of the environment my greater focus, I still wanted birdcalls in my hand. I loved taking five-minute chunks of sound and playing it back, hearing again the parrots and the oropendolas and the pihas. I would put it into Mrs. Vooris’s computer the next day, when we would be presenting our completed presentations.

Jack, Kaeo and Claire on a walkway - photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

Jack, Kaeo and Claire on a walkway – photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

At the end of our only full day at ACTS, we went back up for a sunset on the canopy. This time though, we were quiet, curbing our excitement and adrenaline, taking it all in with reverence. The rainforest was singing under the orange light of the sun, and a fine mist started to rise from the trees, lacing the green with gossamer clouds of white. We are so lucky, I thought, to live in a world so beautiful and powerful and wild. Sometimes when I go to certain places I get a brush of the force of nature, of all the beings contained within this garden of gods, and feel a deep sense of peace and purpose. When tired from schoolwork, or later, work-work, I will remember Platform 6 and the rainbow, the majesty of the rainforest, and the wonder and importance of the world I am trying to help save. And I will remember then too that it is worth it all.

2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  

Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

I swear, there is something distinctly more satisfying about Fanta from a glass bottle than from a can. Maybe it’s the sugarcane in the soda. Maybe it’s the frostiness that comes from being in a freezer three seconds earlier. For me last night it was the feeling of pleasant exhaustion that comes from a long, unbelievable day that added an extra kick to the orange drink.

Our morning at Explorama started early. Alarms sounded at 5:00 so we would have our luggage loaded and be stumbling onto the rapidos by 6:00. We flew through the flooded trees onto the river in the budding dawn and woke up along the ride to ExplorNapo Lodge, a slightly more rustic Explorama accommodation on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. On the hour-and-half run I birded out the open sides of the boat. Most I did not recognize, but Lucio is a man of many talents, and knows the names of every last bird here, in both English and Spanish. I filled my journal with notes on the Gold-Hooded Blackbird, the Ringed and Amazonian Kingfishers, and several others.

Arrival at the ExplorNapo Lodge

Arrival at the ExplorNapo Lodge

When we reached Napo we were greeted with Buenos Dias and a wonderful breakfast, and afterward found our rooms, where our luggage was waiting. The employees here work very hard to make us feel welcome and comfortable, for which we are all very grateful. The rooms are clean and open-air under a single thatched roof. Mosquito netting covers the beds. I like sitting up inside on my bed and feeling secure inside the little tent the net makes, happy in the knowledge the skeeters are suckered for now.  Overall, the conditions are not as bad as we thought, weather-wise. It’s not very hot due to the clouds and shade, and the humidity can be countered with light, loose clothes. They also have showers here, the water supplied by the nearby river. After breakfast we went for our first jungle walk. Lucio led us over a muddy path of wet clay winding through the trees. Within seconds we were out of sight of the lodge. The forest here is dense, quiet, and watchful, the only sounds the insect hum and occasional birdcalls. There is almost no wind, so the trees and plants stand silent, and I found myself whispering when I spoke. After a little ways we stopped and spread out along the trail, within sight of each other but far enough apart to focus. Our teachers told us to look down, up, and around for one square meter and listen to the jungle sounds, writing down what we saw. As I came to learn, one square meter can teach you a lot.

There is something old and attentive about this land, and everything is connected. The ground is composed of spongy roots tangled together with dirt shoved between the cracks, and the forest is layers upon layers of plants growing atop one another. In front of where I stood, a tree had fallen. I doubted it had been down long; not much that’s dead stays dead in the rainforest. Tiny mushrooms sprouted from the log’s flanks. Young trees and shrubs fed on the decomposing wood. The bark and outer layer had been already disappeared, so the whole thing looked like a cord of live, exposed nerves. The living and the dead take turns here.

Walking and watching in the forest

Walking and watching in the forest

We looped eventually back to the lodge, passing too much life to count. Monkey ladder vines, leaf bugs, a rubber tree that towered to the sky–the majesty and sheer magnitude of the rainforest is a little overwhelming. We went back and ate lunch, took a siesta during which most of us crashed in the hammocks near the dining room and caught up on sleep, and got ready for our next activity of the day. We were going to visit the medicine man.

Lucio and our other guide, Raul, took us up a short trail over a causeway and into the nearby Botanical Gardens, a cleared area next to a man-made fishing pond in which huge palms rise from the water. We came into a round, open-sided thatched-roof room with a floor of hard-packed clay. Two low-backed benches lined part of the sides, and in the back was a wooden table heaped with greenery and bottles filled with thick liquid. There was no light other than the outside sun. Behind the table stood a Peruvian man wearing a geometric-colored headband with feathers sticking up from the rim. Raul introduced him as Guillermo, the shaman.

Guillermo has been practicing shamanism since his early teens. As he and Raul explained to us, the traditional art of medicine and energy amongst the river tribes is becoming steadily more rare, as Western methods and products take root. Guillermo was taught by his father to be a shaman by his father before him. It is a grueling process, with tests such as going into the jungle for months and drinking periodically the hallucinogenic ahuasca, a concoction derived from a certain vine. It is under this mixture’s spell that shamans can discover new sources of healing, animals sacred to them, and see visions specific to their character and history.

Over the next half hour Guillermo showed us his medicine way. I scribbled madly in my notebook, writing down the uses of plants such as uña de gato, which helps with aches and arthritis, a plant called golden button that, when we chewed it, worked as temporary Novocaine, and my personal favorite: sangre de grado, dragon’s blood, which the local women call magic sap. The blood red sap helps with basic irritations such as acne, to more heavy-duty needs like post-natal bleeding. I bought two small bottles of it from Guillermo afterwards, and am now using it, with impressive effect, on my more stubborn pimples.

My favorite part, however, was the cleansing ceremony at the very end. Guillermo bade us close our eyes and relax. He lit a tobacco pipe and took a shaman’s leaf bundle used for ceremonies. Blowing smoke into the bundle, he walked back and forth in front of us, striking the palm frond on his hand and chanting in a tongue I could not name. His song was roughly beautiful, and something worked loose deep inside me, like the acid released from the muscles during a good massage. At the end, he took a phial of yellow-orange liquid he said was an extract of orchids and other sweet-smelling flowers, and rubbed it onto our palms, for cleansing energy. We passed it before our faces, and were finished.


I felt better after going to the medicine man. It is easy I find, in a world with so much despair, to forget about the hope essential to the workings of the world. The dragon’s blood tree is rare now due to a years-ago harvesting. Guillermo’s craft, a vital part of his culture, is rare now too. These realities, and others, can cloud my sight of the good. But I bought a vial of that orchid-blood too, and smelling it sends me back under a thatched roof to warm brown hands holding a tradition I do not think will be forgotten any time soon. And in remembering this, I hope.

It’s all fun and games until you get birds and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology involved…then mayhem, hilarity, and learning ensue!


Last summer, birding in the Amazon became a full contact sport as U.S. and Peruvian educators and students raced around the grounds outside the Amazon library – flapping their “wings” as they searched for resources needed to survive!   Language barriers dissolved as hands were clasped and teams were formed.  Laughter filled the air as educators learned to communicate with hand signals and pantomime.

How does magic like this happen?  It takes partnerships and a lot of planning, but it is so worth it!  During the annual Educator Academy in the Amazon for K-12 teachers, we partner with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to bring their BirdSleuth programs to the Amazon.


While they are in the Amazon, U.S. educators work with Lilly Briggs, Cornell’s International BirdSleuth Coordinator, and are introduced to the new Habitat Connections curriculum.   This great program uses inquiry, games, and citizen science to help students discover the diverse habitat need of birds and the challenges they face when migrating.  We then partner with CONAPAC’s Amazon Library and host a similar teacher training for Peruvian educators – many of which have to travel for hours by boat to make the training.


The high point of all this in-depth exploration is an afternoon of fun and community building between U.S. and Peruvian teachers.  Together we “field test” several Habitat Connections activities with the students who visit the Amazon library after school each day.

14662568112_248a60d934_oIt was an experience none of us will ever forget, but we left with way more than just happy memories.  All of us have new tools and resources that will improve our teaching and engage our students – whether we teach in a one room school in the Amazon, a private school in NYC, or an elementary school in Tuscola, Illinois.


So how does all this translate back to a US classroom?  Here’s how one teacher took what she learned in the Amazon and integrated it into her classroom.


Connecting the Amazon to the Classroom via BirdSleuth 14750812696_ffdf8d12d1_k

by Pam White-Evans, 6th grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Tuscola, IL.

(Pam teaches math, science, and social studies but if she ever needs another career she has a real talent for talking to howler monkeys in rehab!)

“Our first science unit of the year this fall was Birdsleuth’s Habitat Connections. It was very interactive and the students really enjoyed this aspect of the curriculum.

The first lesson was “Habitat Investigation.” This lesson gave the students a chance to get outside and explore their schoolyard. We had one particular area in mind that we would like to improve, so we studied it extensively. This was the start of information gathering for a grant that we applied for. The students were introduced to the idea of citizen science. It was an idea they really liked. We got out our binoculars and took a bird walk and practiced taking data to input into eBird.

The second lesson (and their favorite!) was “Migration Obstacles.” It was a beautiful, slightly windy, rather warm day when we did this activity. This activity is so much fun because everyone is involved in some way during the exercise. Improvising “hazards” makes it interesting. Our hazards ranged from a “ghost” building to wetlands to glass buildings and an airstrip, cars to cats. The children enjoyed being the hazard as well as trying to dodge the hazards. It wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. We talked about ways to improve the migration route and make it more bird friendly. Then they tried again and were much more successful.20140821_142542

There are some very good slides to go along with each lesson. We looked at the migration routes that certain birds followed. They were interested to see the birds that were in South America near the area where we visited the Amazon.

The third lesson “Bird Survivor” teaches about the life cycle of birds in an interactive game. The “Fact or Fiction” is a good way to get them thinking about some common misconceptions they may have about birds. For example, do all birds build nests? The survivor games goes through the life cycle of birds by having some students be the bird and the rest of the class telling them their fate. In the end, not all are successful. It is sometimes hard being a bird!

The fourth lesson “To Migrate or Not” looks at tropical and temperate residents and migrants. Talking about tropical migrants was the perfect time to talk about the birds in the Amazon! Through my eBird account we looked at many of the birds I had seen while visiting. We could then see if they were migratory birds or if they lived in the area year round. The students were able to see additional hazards of migration. This tied in with the sixth lesson “Modeling Migration” that takes a close look at eBird. Students were able to look closely at data and learn to decipher what the graphs were trying to tell them.



The fifth lesson is “Scientist in Action.” I don’t believe that too many of the students had thought that scientists actually study birds and what they do. Nate Senner’s activities intrigues the students. They found his study interesting, but many thought it would be really hard to do that.

The seventh and final lesson is “Improve Your Bird Habitat.” After going through all the lessons, we took another look at the area that we would like to improve in our school yard. We decided to make the area an outdoor classroom where we can observe birds and other wildlife, as well as attract Monarch butterflies. We went through the grant application, so the students could see what needed to be done. They drew sketches and helped write the answers to the questions. We look forward to finding out whether or not we will be funded for our project!

I ended the unit with a slideshow of pictures from my trip to the Amazon. The students were intrigued by the pictures and the information that I shared with them.”


So what’s next?

We have another Educator Academy in the Amazon scheduled for July 1-11, 2015.  This year, as part of the program, we will conduct two BirdSleuth training for U.S. and Peruvian teachers and expand our reach deeper into the Amazon so we can share this wonderful resource with even more Amazon teachers and students.   This is our way of giving back and thanking the Amazon and its people for allowing us to use their backyard as our classroom!

We’d love to have you join us!  More info on the 2015 Educator Academy can be found here:  http://www.amazonworkshops.com/educator-academy.html


As students return to their classrooms following spring break, many will share their stories of beaches with friends and family. But for thirteen students from the Derryfield School in New Hampshire, the conversation will be very different:

“So what did you do on spring break?”

“Not much…just traveled to the Amazon, slept under mosquito netting, checked for bats in the toilets, braved torrential downpours in the rainforest canopy, and did research on tiny poison dart frogs. How ‘bout you?”

That is exactly what this band of intrepid explorers did – and then some!


Jack Sanford, a teacher at The Derryfield School in New Hampshire, led this group of amazing young explorers into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. Their mission was to search for amphibians and monitor them for the chytrid fungus that is causing mass extinctions of amphibians around the world.


With the guidance of Marcy Sieggreen, amphibian expert from the Detroit Zoo, the Derryfield students hiked along rainforest trails day and night in search of frogs. Using international monitoring protocols, the students swabbed frogs of all sizes and colors to determine if chytrid is a growing threat in the Amazon.


Their samples will be analyzed by Sieggreen and contribute to the Detroit Zoo’s ongoing research in the area.   Additional data collected by Sanford and his students will be analyzed by Sanford’s advanced biology students as part of a year-end project.

Talk about applying biology to real world problems! These young explorers had a first-hand taste of what it means to be a field biologist in a very magical and yet challenging environment.   The weather is unpredictable, the frogs do not always cooperative, and the variables of a research question are not easily controlled. This, my friends and fellow educators, is what real science and science teaching is all about!


You may ask, “Why travel to the Amazon to do a project like this, when we can monitor frogs in our own community?” A good question!

Sanford and his students have the answer. They monitor frogs in New Hampshire as well, but wanted to make a personal connection and contribution to this global crisis. During their visit to the Amazon, they met with students from the “Amazon Amphibians Protector Club.” This small band of students from the village of Llachapa and their committed teacher, Carmen Shuta, regularly work with Marcy Sieggreen and submit their amphibian observations to her via field journals and digital cameras. Sanford and his students organized an exchange with Shuta’s students and shared information about the frogs of North America – including photos, fast facts, and even frog calls.


As a result, plans are being made to continue this type of exchange using skype and email. The hope is that the Derryfield/Llachapa exchange will serve as a model for student to student international collaboration and will build awareness and appreciation not only for environmental issues like amphibian decline, but also deepen cultural awareness and appreciation between US and Amazon students.

So what’s next? Sanford and his students are in the process of adopting an Amazon school and through their efforts they will provide school supplies and fresh drinking water to their peers in Peru.   They are working on an amphibian photo book to share with their new friends in Llachapa and will continue to work with Sieggreen to identify the frogs they monitored in Peru and analyze the data they collected. Someday soon, we hope another group of Derryfield students will be back in Peru to continue what this wonderful group of intrepid field biologists began.

Many, many thanks to Jack Sanford, Marcy Sieggreen, guides Willy Flores Lanza and Luis Mayanchi Del Aguila, the administration from the Derryfield School and our partners at Explorama and CONAPAC.  Without your incredible leadership, none of this would be possible!

Would you like to give your students an alternative spring break in the Amazon? You can! Click here for more info on Amazon Rainforest Workshops for Students


Sloths have been making headlines this week –  They even got a feature in the New York Times!

Maybe you thought all you really needed to know about sloths is that they are sloowwww, like to hang out in trees, are kind of a greenish brown, and are just about the cutest things that live in a rainforest.  Or maybe you are a sloth aficionado and you regularly amaze your friends with your humorous stories about sloth defecation and the moths that love it.  Oh wait?  You haven’t heard that one?

Ok, before I reveal the newest, MIND BENDING, HEADLINE MAKING DISCOVERY about sloths, let’s go over the basics.

1. Two of the most common sloths in Neotropical rainforests are the 2-toed sloth and the 3-toed sloth.

2. Both types of sloths like to hang out in trees.

3. Three-toed sloths tend to have a lot of “things” that live in their hair.  Things like cockroaches, round worms, and moths, to name a few.  (It’s ok to be thinking EEWWWW right now!)

4. The 3-toed sloth also has an, umm, well, “unusual” bathroom habit.  (Probably not a shocker based on what you just learned).  In order to “take care of business,” 3-toed sloths actually climb down from the top of the tree to the forest floor to defecate.   As you can image, that is a really long and slow trip back and forth to the bathroom.  Plus this can be risky if there happens to be a jaguar down there waiting for you!

5. While the sloth is down on the ground, the pregnant moths that live in its hair scurry out and lay their eggs in the feces – a fancy term for poop – because apparently sloth moth larva do best on a strict diet of sloth dung.  (Yes, another EEEWWW is a perfectly normal response)

6. The sloth moth larva munch happily away in their sloth dung play pen until they transform into adult moths.  Now that they are all grown up, the dung pile just doesn’t cut it anymore.  The adult moths fly up into the canopy in search of a new home on the back of a sloth.  If they are lucky a mate awaits, cozily protected by the sloth’s course hair – and the cycle starts all over again.

If you are happily humming the Circle of Life song, wait just one minute!  We are NOT done yet!  

7. Turns out that as the moths go about their daily lives in the hair of a sloth, they leave behind a lot of nitrogen.  Guess what likes nitrogen?  Come on …guess!  Yes, algae likes nitrogen, especially green algae.

8. Ah ha!  The algae gives the sloth its green color and this helps the sloth blend into its environment – kind of a grow your own camouflage with moths providing the fertilizer deal. 

Up until now this is where the story ended.  BUT WAIT…There is more! 

2013 Academy 490

9. New research has revealed evidence that sloths might actually eat the algae that grows in their hair.  Algae is actually quite nutritious and would help to supplement the sloth’s less than stellar diet of leaves.   Researchers have found that the more moths a sloth has, the more nitrogen is held in its coat. More nitrogen = more algae to eat! (Preliminary research found algae in sloth stomachs, so the researchers are definitely on to something!)  Hmmmm, maybe running the risk of being eaten by a jaguar is worth guaranteeing a steady supply algae in your hair?

AND NOW for the really MIND BLOWING PART.  Are you ready?

10. You will never guess what else is growing alongside the algae.  Really, you never will, but go ahead and try if you want.  Can’t guess?  Ok – are you ready…FUNGI, freakin’ fungi.   But not your average, run of the mill fungi – fungi with super powers.  Researchers have discovered that the fungi that live on sloth hair have potent ANTI-CANCER, ANTI-BACTERIAL, and ANTI-PARASITIC properties!  Is it possible that the sloth is cultivating its very own pharmacy??

I don’t know about you, but that just leaves me flabbergasted and awestruck.   Some curious person made observations, asked WHY, and opened their mind to possibilities!   They not only uncovered another piece of an already crazy natural history story….they might possibly have discovered a new source of medicines that have the potential to treat nasty things like malaria, Chagas disease, and even certain forms of breast cancer.

This is why cultivating a curious mind matters – it is the foundation of scientific thinking.  This is why rainforests and the creatures that live there matter.  This is why science in the rainforest matters!  Discoveries like this put rainforests back in the spotlight as an untapped resource for inspiration, knowledge, medicines, and more – a natural resource far more valuable as an intact and healthy ecosystem. 

One final note:  Researchers don’t know yet if there is a relationship between the algae and the fungi, but I for one wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was!

For more detail on these latest discoveries go to:

For you uber science heads, here’s the journal article about the fungi discovery:

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times…the future of the planet depends on the students sitting in our classrooms.  As educators, the task of nurturing this next generation to appreciate the role of science in addressing local as well as global problems often falls to us. At times this may seem like a super human task that requires a spandex suit and a cape.


Happily, our 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon participants are redefining what it means to be a super hero.  They have traded in their capes for rain ponchos, field notebooks and i-buttons.

They are becoming role models for their students because they understand that as teachers they need to participate in science themselves in order to incorporate science methods in their classrooms. They need to use inquiry-based techniques in order to guide their students in the tools and skills of research. They need to experience critical ecosystems, such as the Amazon in order to teach about their importance to global health.

Here are a few examples of what our Amazon Super Heroes are up to!

Science Explorers, EcoFest, and the Wooster Elementary Environmental Science Club

 Jennifer R. and Jolene W., Arkansas, Elementary Educators.  This dynamic duo from Arkansas truly don’t need capes to rank as Amazon super heroes.


They epitomize what it means to be “facilitators of wonder” as they lead their students on explorations of their school yard nature trail, engage them as citizens during a community wide EcoFest, and integrate an appreciation for the wonders of nature into every lesson they teach.

“Our 4th and 5th grade Environmental Science Club set up a Rainforest Awareness informational board at EcoFest in Conway.  They displayed an experiment that showed the importance of keeping trees in the Rainforest because of the effects on the water.  It also communicated the need for clean drinking water and school supplies for the people of Peru. We have shared our personal encounters and pictures with our students so that they are able to empathize with those people.   We want our students not to take things for granted and appreciate their education.”

You can read more about the Wooster Elementary Science explorers on their blog: http://richardsonscienceexplorers.blogspot.com/

Biodiversity and Butterflies  

Kathryn E., Oklahoma Middle School Educator and Fund For Teachers Fellow.  With all the new standards coming out, it can take super human efforts to re-imagine classroom instruction.  But great educators like Kathryn take it all in stride.  Kathryn is turning her classroom into a rainforest as a way to energize science content and engage her students – while still meeting the standards and finding time to be a Fund For Teachers Fellow and Fulbright Distinguished Educator too!

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“How can an educator not bring amazing information from the Amazon back to the classroom?  With lessons and activities ranging from fishing for piranhas to teaching S.T.E.M in the classroom, I gained valuable experiences and content knowledge to enhance my ecology unit. I am much more confident in my teaching about the attributes of the rainforest, symbiotic relationships, and natural resources.  For example, when discussing symbiotic relationships with my students, I was able to use examples I observed first-hand in the Amazon rainforest.  Little by little the Amazon rainforest is coming alive in my classroom.  For the first time, I have a large butterfly habit to observe and record the life cycle and then students will be researching tropical butterflies compared to the butterflies found in North America. Next, there will be fish in the classroom and learning about the pink river dolphin and piranhas. Then, I will bring in orchids, bromeliads, and ferns to teach about the trees and epiphytes of the rainforest.  By the end of the semester, my classroom will be quite the example of a rainforest.”

Connecting the Desert to the Rainforest  

Amanda R., Nevada, US Park Service.  One can only imagine what Amanda could do if she actually had a super hero costume! This desert dynamo is on a non-stop mission to share the wonders of the world with all the visitors she works with as part of her job with the National Park Service.  She somehow still finds time to do things on the side – like creating rainforest “GreenBoxes” for the GreenPower program at the Desert Research Institute which will provide educators with hands-on teaching activities and materials that show just how much the desert and the rainforest have in common!


“The goal of these green boxes will be to provide a diversity of hands-on investigations by using such resources as GLOBE, STEM, Project Noah, and the 5 E inquiry model. With this goal in mind, this will be one of the many bridges that teacher can use to educate youth in Clark County and throughout the state of Nevada and the country of Peru.”

Urban Science Superstars 

Holly M., Massachusetts, Middle School Educator.  After returning from the Amazon, Holly launched the school year with a “DonorsChoose” project request to raise money to purchase the equipment her students will need to become citizen scientists and collect environmental data for the  GLOBE program.  Holly’s students come from an urban school surrounded by buildings and cement.  It is a diverse, inner city school with 91% of students designated as High Needs due to low income status, English Language Learner status or Special Education status. Nearly 66% of the children come from families where English is not their primary language.


“My goal, as their middle school science teacher, is to expose them to technology, make science authentic and investigative and show them what real scientists do, while bringing as much of the natural world into my classroom as possible.  I was inspired by the data collection I did as a participant in the 2013 Educator Academy and I want to share this excitement with my students.  By collecting data, using an exact protocol, and contributing to a scientific community, it is my hope that they will feel empowered and energized, just as I did in the Amazon”

Read all about Holly’s DonorsChoose proposal and then start your own!

More Amazon Super Hero Profiles Coming soon! Rainforest Alliance Schools in Jacksonville, FL,  Biomimicry Science Fair Projects in Colorado, Watershed Collaborations in the Mid Atlantic, and More!