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For the last twenty years, the educators and students who participated in our Amazon Workshops have snapped amazing photos of rainforest biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these photos have only been seen by a handful of friends and family – or worse they are in a shoebox under the bed!

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One has to wonder…what could we learn about rainforest biodiversity if we had access to all the photos taken over the last two decades? What if we could take all those photos and sort them by location and date and species? Would we be able to see patterns of distribution? Discern subtle changes in populations? Stumble upon something new and undiscovered?

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What if we could share these photos with the world and inspire wonder and curiosity and knowledge in the next generation of explorers who sit in our classrooms?

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Project Noah "Deep Roots" patch commemorating our 1 year anniversary

Project Noah “Deep Roots” patch commemorating our 1 year anniversary

Exactly one year ago we stumbled upon Project Noah; a tool that harnesses the power of digital photography, GPS, and mobile technology, and we immediately knew we had an answer. Finally the multitudes of photos that are taken each year in the Amazon could have a larger purpose!

Last summer, we launched a pilot of Project Noah during our Educator Workshop. The images in this post are from that expedition. Our initial goal was to shine a light on Amazon biodiversity and begin to construct a virtual field guide to the region we visit each summer. We created a “mission” on Project Noah and called it Species Spotlight: Peruvian Amazon.

Many of our participants uploaded their photos to our mission and created field notes for their observations. Experts from around the world took notice and helped with some of the species identification. Even today these photos are viewed and commented on as we continue to fill in the details for each spotting.

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For 2013, we are incorporating Project Noah more fully into our Educator Academy in the Amazon and are already working with educators across the country to connect our Amazon images to their classrooms. This year, in addition to simply capturing images of what we see, we will also use our Project Noah spottings to explore the themes of plant and animal adaptations, biomimicry, and climate change in the Amazon.

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Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but the curiosity they incite is priceless. 

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!  How can you use these photos to incite curiosity?  What questions do they raise? What research might they prompt? Please respond in the comment box below.

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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?

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?

Suddenly the treetops above us erupted in noise and chaos.  We scrambled to grab our binoculars and craned our necks to find the source of mayhem high above our heads.   Hearts beating fast, senses heightened, we quickly spotted a troop of tiny primates climbing and jumping through the canopy of the Amazon rainforest.  In a flash they were gone and the forest returned to its silent midday slumber.

We gathered together on the trail and in excited voices compared notes as we tried to identify the exact species we had spotted.  We quickly concluded that we had just seen a small family group of pygmy marmosets, the world’s smallest true monkey.

Still flush with excitement, we reflected on the powerful, even visceral, reactions we all felt as we watched those tiny mammals race through the treetops.  Unexpected and unfiltered, this chance encounter in nature did more to ignite our curiosity than any science textbook or zoo exhibit ever had.  This, we determined, was what the joy of discovery felt like.

In this age of high stakes testing, Common Core, and Next Generation Science Standards, it is easy to focus our learning (and teaching) of science to formal classroom environments, but in fact science is all around us.  Taking advantage of “informal learning environments” opens up the opportunity for us to experience the joy of discovery – opening our eyes to the excitement and wonder that is science.

Surrounded by Science:  Learning Science in Informal Environments by Fenichel and Schweingruber elaborates on the power of informal science learning.  In a nutshell, informal science learning:

  • Sparks our interest and excitement in learning about the natural world.
  • Deepens our understanding of and appreciation for scientific content and knowledge we may already have or would like to acquire.
  • Engages us in scientific reasoning as we test, explore, predict, question, observe, and make sense of the world. around us.
  • Encourages us to reflect on science as a way of knowing and understanding the world around us.
  • Provides us with hands on experience with the tools and language of science.
  • Develops our identity as science learners – someone who knows about, uses, and can contribute to science.

Reflecting back on that chance encounter with the pygmy marmosets, it is clear that we had also encountered the power of “informal science learning” as we all wanted to know more, learn more, and do more as citizen scientists in the Amazon.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION! When was the last time you experienced the joy of discovery?  The thrill of an epiphany?  A reawakening of wonder?  How did these “informal” learning experiences shape your identity as a science learner?

What happens in the Amazon should never stay in the Amazon…and if the educators we worked with last summer are any indication, the Amazon is already spilling over its banks and into their classrooms, communities, and personal lives.

Our ten day immersion into tropical ecology, research, and culture gave all of us the chance to challenge ourselves, our assumptions, and our responsibilities. As educators we sought new knowledge and insights to inspire our teaching and motivate our students. As individuals, many of us wanted an adventure in a remote and wild part of the planet.  For some it was an opportunity to rekindle a long lost passion. For others it was an opportunity to push beyond established comfort zones. Many found it a means to look at the world with a new set of eyes.

2012 Amazon Rainforest Workshop for Educators

As educators, most of us had “taught” the rainforest at various points in our careers.  Almost everyone acknowledged that it has become more and more difficult to include this engaging content in our instruction.  As part of the privileged few who actually get to experience the Amazon first hand, we grappled with our personal and professional responsibilities.

In this age of high stakes testing, Next Generation Science Standards, and the Common Core, we pondered how to take what we experienced and make it relevant to our curricula, our classrooms, and our students.  What bound us all together was the idea that rainforests are magical, wonderful, inspiring places and they deserve a place in our curriculum. Not because monkeys are fun and frogs are fabulous (they are!) but rather because rainforests hold the key to many of our most pressing environmental issues – including global climate change Our students will be the ones that will tackle these issues and we need to prepare them.  Inspired by our time in the Amazon, we returned home with a new perspective on “teaching” the rainforest and how the rainforest relates to instructional best practices, interdisciplinary and crosscutting concepts, and the core ideas of our respective disciplines. Although the strategies will be different for each of us, we are committed to supporting one another in our efforts.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION:  Is the Amazon or the rainforest part of your curriculum?  Need some inspiration?  Check out this mindmap and then tell us how you can use rainforest topics to engage your students and meet the standards.