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

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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.

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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.

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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.


 

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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.

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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

 

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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! 

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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:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/science/the-sloths-busy-inner-life.html?_r=1
http://blogs.plos.org/everyone/2014/01/18/rainforest-fungi-find-home-sloth-hair/

For you uber science heads, here’s the journal article about the fungi discovery:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0084549