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Blind Dates in the Amazon

November 6, 2014

Standing on the banks of the Sucasari River as dusk began to settle around me, I strained to hear the sound of approaching boats over the cacophony of rainforest insects and frogs. 14660644373_8d44daf6cf_z (1)

I had only emerged from the jungle two hours earlier after spending over a week with high school students exploring the rainforest from top to bottom – my personal version of heaven.  With just enough time for quick shower and a clean set of clothes, I needed to regroup – and quickly. I had to be ready to greet a boat of weary educators who had just spent the better part of two days traveling to this remote corner of the Amazon rainforest in Northeastern Peru.   I knew their names and some of their faces, but we had never met in person.

Feeling like I was about to go on a blind date with 28 people all at once, I could feel the butterflies of nervous anticipation taking wing in my stomach.  Who were these people that I would spend the week with? (I’ve been at this long enough to know educators can be WAY harder than students!) Was I ready for them?  Were they ready for me?

Could they handle the ambitious agenda I had planned in order to cram as many learning, exploring, and discovery opportunities as possible into our short time together?  In the end, would they be able to justify the fees they had paid to attend this K-12 science professional development experiment that I (along with my amazing Amazon faculty) had dreamed up?  Would they embrace the adventure with gusto and not balk at the rustic conditions, the heat, the humidity, the mud, and the biodiversity in the latrines?

Would they find their inner explorer and ring every last drop of wonder out of each experience we threw at them?  14643775381_171477c4ba_oCould they get up before dawn, bird before breakfast, dig up leaf cutter ant nests till noon, climb through the rainforest canopy after lunch, and keep going long after dark in search of nocturnal wildlife along rainforest trails?  Would we, together, be able to successfully build curriculum connections between these amazing Amazon experiences and the classroom?

Or, would they revolt and retreat to the hammocks, exhausted, nursing their frustrations with pisco sours and cervezas, while plotting a mutiny?

Finally, the sound of outboard engines parted the curtain of rainforest noise and two boats full of the 2014 Educator Academy participants rounded the bend in the river.

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In short order, 28 disheveled, but smiling bodies emerged from the covered boats. As the educators clambered up the steps to the lodge, I could see a wonderful mix of anticipation, curiosity, excitement, and awe wash over their faces as they took in the Amazon rainforest for the very first time – mirroring the euphoria and relief felt when you realize your blind date is going to be way better than expected!  It was immediately evident that my 28 “blind dates” were more than up for the adventure we had planned.

Little did any of us know just how life changing the next 8 days would be, how close we would all become, and how the Amazon would transform the ways we think and teach. No one could have anticipated how the Amazon would refuse to let us go once we returned home.    

“This program immersed me into life on the Amazon River. I am forever changed by the knowledge, stories, challenges and life-long friendships developed during this experience!” ~Melissa Jordan, 2014

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Are you ready for the blind date of a lifetime?  Registration is open and scholarships are available for the 2015 Educator Academy in the Amazon.  Learn more and download the syllabus here.

Submitted by Christa Dillabaugh, Director, Educator Academy in the Amazon

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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.

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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.

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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!

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“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.

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“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! 

We’ve said it before, and we can’t help but say it again…” What happens in the Amazon should never stay in the Amazon!”

Each and every year the educators and students we have the privilege to share the Amazon with give life to these words.  Each and every year the wonders of the Amazon are carried back to friends, families, classrooms, communities, as students and teachers share what they have learned and experienced.  Each and every year we do our best to build Amazon Awareness through education!

K Keever 2013 (10)In July of 2013, we broke recent records and hosted 30 intrepid educators on our first annual Educator Academy in the Amazon.  Students from Sidwell Friends School and Shady Side Academy (to name a few) explored the rainforest on reconnaissance for their schools in order to build long term relationships with the Amazon.  For adults and students alike, this 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.

AZ Edu 7-13 076In addition to total immersion (tarantulas falling from the ceiling and bats flying out of latrines) into Amazon biodiversity, we engaged  in hands-on investigations, citizen science research projects, and inquiry-based learning activities designed to deepen our understanding of the rainforest ecosystem and its global importance.  We even explored how rainforest concepts relate to 21st century instructional models such as 5E lesson design, inquiry-based exploration, STEM education.  Innovative instructional tools such as Project Learning Tree, GLOBE, and Project Noah gave us practical tools to take back to our classrooms.   Cross curricular learning experiences focused on cultural exchange, service learning, and sustainability and provided us with even more inspiration for how to deepen our student’s understanding of the complexities global environmental issues.

In this age of high stakes testing, Next Generation Science Standards, and the Common Core, we pondered how to take what we experienced in the Amazon 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

The future of our planet depends on our students becoming concerned scientists, responsible environmental policy makers and informed global citizens.  Knowledge and skills in science are paramount.  How do we nurture this next generation to appreciate the role of science in addressing local as well as global problems related to climate change, sustainable development, and resource conservation?  As teachers and teacher educators, we need to participate in science ourselves in order to incorporate science methods into our classrooms.  We need to use inquiry-based techniques in order to guide our students in the tools and skills of research. We need to experience critical ecosystems, such as the rainforest, in order to teach about their importance to global health.

In June 2014, another cohort of educators from across the united states will have the unique opportunity to explore these issues through our second annual Educator Academy in the Amazon

In addition, educators from Arizona and Nevada and other desert states can enroll in a spin off program, the Desert to Rainforest Academy, coordinated by Arizona State University faculty.   The Desert to Rainforest Academy participants will engage in hands-on investigations, citizen science research projects, and inquiry based learning activities in both desert and rainforest ecosystems.  During the Desert to the Rainforest Educator Academy, participants will get a close-up view of both the desert and the rainforest as complex systems with narrow niches and the interconnected relationships between soil, water, plants, wildlife, climate and people.

Educators Napo 7.3.12 006Both of these programs encourage the development of a “new set of glasses” for one’s local environment and provide a wider context for exploring significant questions such as – What is biodiversity and why does it matter to me? What factors determine the biodiversity of the desert, the Amazon, my backyard, and the planet? How will climate change affect the many dimensions of the Amazon ecosystem?  How will it affect us locally in Arizona? Why is access to water a global concern?  As a global citizen, what is my responsibility?

Participants in next summer’s Academy programs will be charged with sharing and applying what they learn with their students, districts, and communities.  And once again…the Amazon will flood U.S. Classrooms! 

For more information on Rainforest Educator Academy Programs and how you can participate, please visit http://www.amazonworkshops.com/educators–naturalists.html or contact Christa Dillabaugh, christa@amazonworkshops.com  / 1-800-431-2624.

After poking around in the leaf litter and climbing into the canopy of the Amazon, it seems we might have discovered a new species of STEM378938-R1-13_12We affectionately call it by its common name, STEMazon.  Although not officially described by STEMologists, we have petitioned to give it a proper scientific name – Stemus amazonicus.

STEM, as you may know, is an educational organism that is taking the world by storm.  School districts across the country are scrambling to get some form of STEM into their classrooms as fast as possible.  Everyone is hopeful that a healthy population of STEMs will bring much needed balance to the educational ecosystem.  It seems that new species of STEM are being discovered daily.  The latest domestic STEM species is commonly called STEAM (Stemus Artus) and is named for its affinity for incorporating the arts into its diet.

So what’s so special about Stemus amazonicus?  Until recently, most educators didn’t believe that the Amazon had any connection to their classrooms and curricula.  Sure, all those monkeys are super cute and the frogs really are fabulous, but in this age of high stakes testing, the Common Core, and Next Generation Science Standards, the common misconception was that the Amazon had no relevance to 21st century instruction.  STEMazon (Stemus amazonicus) is about to change all that!

All puns and humor aside, here at Amazon Workshops, our goal is to make the Amazon relevant in today’s classrooms. While we firmly believe that teaching about the Amazon’s amazing flora, fauna, and indigenous cultures has merit and value, we also realize that in order to make these topics relevant in today’s educational ecosystem, we need a new approach.

stemAs a result, we are investigating how Amazon themes and topics can be used as focal points for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) lessons, activities, and explorations.

It is critical that today’s students develop the knowledge, attitudes, and awareness needed to understand the Amazon’s importance as a shared global resource. It is equally important that they develop the skills necessary to actively participate in its protection.  Incorporating the principles of high quality STEM education into our toolkit is one way to do this.

Our 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon will provide expedition members the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hunt for STEMazon in its native habitat! Our goal is to identify not only its physical attributes but to understand its natural history; learn how it interacts the inhabitants of today’s educational ecosystem; and explore its potential for use in US classrooms.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!  Are you incorporating STEM into your classroom instruction?  How might you use Amazon topics and themes as focal points for STEM instruction? Have an idea for a “STEMazon” mascot?  Give us your ideas!

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.

What do one tropical canopy researcher, a Minnesota teacher, and a bunch of teenagers have in common?  On the surface, not much.  But dig a bit deeper, or rather climb a bit higher, and you will find a shared passion for exploring and understanding the intricacies of the Amazon rainforest canopy!

Researcher, Dr. Meg Lowman, and high school teacher, DC Randle, have joined forces to mentor the next generation of rainforest researchers and in the process are transforming the lives of Minnesota high school students.  Many of DC’s student have traveled with him to the Amazon and with the help of Meg, they have engaged in all sorts of inquiry based projects including herbivory (plant and animal feeding interactions) assessments, long term plant studies (leaf tagging), bromeliad and epiphyte studies, and more!  DC has given his students the opportunity to become apprentices to a top scientist like Meg and engage in authentic inquiry as they participate in important research in tropical ecology and biology.

It all began when Meg and DC met deep in the neotropical rainforest as guest faculty on a Jason Project, a virtual field trip which streamed live into classrooms around across the US.   Their mentoring partnership has had an enormous trickle-down effect and has made the Amazon come alive for hundreds of students!

For DC, having Meg as a mentor has allowed him to grow as a scientist in his own right.  He has participated in numerous field research projects, worked side by side with a diverse array of scientists,  served on scientific committees, and co-authored papers on tropical ecology.  Ultimately DC says, “I have become a better educator as a direct result of Meg.  My students have become better students of science and education as a result of me mentoring them in the same way Meg has mentored me.” 

What does a professional ecologist like Meg gain from this relationship?  Her work with DC has opened her eyes to the importance of engaging students in the real work of scientists and giving them first-hand experience with the magic of scientific inquiry.  Over the course of her partnership with DC, Meg has shifted part of her professional focus to K-12 education and is now incorporating this new understanding into her work as the director of the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh, NC.

The ripples of this amazing partnership don’t stop with Meg, DC, and a handful of select students.  Through their collaborative efforts, they are able to share and amplify their first hand experiences with research in the Amazon rainforest.   As DC and Meg will attest, in order to sustain these forests for future generations, the first key in doing so is education.  “Students and other interested people need first hand experiences and opportunities to see, investigate, and understand how the system works to better provide the information to sustain them for years to come.” says DC.  Fortunately for all of us, Meg, DC, and their students are doing just this as they spread the word through their schools, communities, and the greater scientific network!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!  Leave a reply below.  Have you been a mentor or a mentee?  How has that impacted your personal and professional life?

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?