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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!  

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

I still can’t get over its name. The “Andean Cock-of-the-Rock?” Seriously?

I’ve been perusing the ID guide to Peruvian birds I bought for a little pre-departure studying, and I have to say I’m a bit awed. Besides the sheer volume of Amazonian winged fauna–Peru holds over 1,800 avian species–their common names are as unique and at times amusing as the birds themselves. Along with the bright orange Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru is home to the Amazonian Umbrellabird (its huge feathery crest reminds me of an overenthusiastic flapper girl), the prehistoric-looking Hoatzin (you can really see how birds evolved from dinosaurs), the jewel-like Little Sunbeam (the hummingbird names are especially fantastic), and hundreds of others.

Me looking in the Peru bird guide at the extravagant Cock-of-the-Rock

Me looking in the Peru bird guide at the extravagant Cock-of-the-Rock

Needless to say, we’re lucky we’ll have a guide well acquainted with the non-human inhabitants of the Amazon. There’s no way each of us could memorize all of the names and faces we’ll be seeing down there, not with the little time we have left to study. For those of us going on the Peru trip, research and planning have become much more immediate parts of our lives. We have less than two weeks until we fly out, and it’s crunch time to get all the loose ends tied and make sure we’re completely ready.

The biggest assignment that we need to complete individually is to plan and prep our research projects. This trip is possible because it is part of the Bay Studies program at our school, a week taken from the school year each spring for the student body to split up and research different parts of the Chesapeake Bay, or in our case, the Amazon River. To take advantage of this, we’ll all be doing individual research projects. One of our teachers, Mrs. Vooris, has downloaded a sound recording software from the Cornell ornithology site onto her computer so several of us can work with the calls of the jungle. One of us will be listening to frog calls, and I’ll be experimenting with the pitch and volume of birdsong in different levels of the canopy and at different times of day and night, along with just general observation and field journaling. Other research projects include soil analyzing, butterfly observation, medicinal plants, and studying the light gaps in the rainforest. My brother will be experimenting with leaf-cutter ants’ reaction to certain stimuli, such as created obstacles or a shifted food source, and one student will be studying the bioluminescence produced on some of the trees. We each need to figure out what we’ll need to bring with us to complete our projects, as we’ll obviously not be able to dash out to the nearest store for something missing. We have been meeting through the last several weeks to pin down what still needs doing.

The group of Gunston students going, minus two

The group of Gunston students going, minus two

The other big objective is gear. We each have a packing list, but many of us are not fully kitted out with waterproof pants and hiking boots. The mosquitoes will be vicious, so long sleeves and lightweight pants are imperative. One of the moms has recommended Permethrin to spray on our clothes and sheets to help keep the bloodsuckers off. It’s less toxic than Deet, which is a relief because they taught me on Hog Island that Deet eats your binoculars, and I’ll be glued to mine. Mrs. Vooris is taking her computer for communication, sound and blog recording, and other functions that require a keyboard and Internet, provided they have strong connection so far from Iquitos. I rather doubt it. The rest of us have been warned to keep any electronics in a Ziploc when not in use. Thinking back to my time in Guatemala when we were still living on our boat, I understand why. It’s called “rainforest” for a reason. We’ll also be there in the high-water season, so max humidity and river levels. As useful as my iPod would be on the long plane rides we’ll be taking, it’s staying home.

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Some of our gear and research material

And there will be lots of flying. Lots of moving in general, actually. We leave on May 15, which just so happens to be the day the seniors of our school Disembark, a traditional transition ceremony where the graduating class leaves campus by boat, just as they had arrived on their first day of school four years before. Normally, they go downriver to the nearby Camp Pecometh for a barbeque and celebration, but the Peru trip seniors will be picked up by Mrs. Vooris, Ms. Beck (our other teacher) and the juniors as soon as they reach the camp. From there we’ll drive to the airport, fly to Fort Lauderdale, drive to and spend the night in Miami, fly to Iquitos the next day and take a several-hour boat ride downriver to one of handful of Explorama lodges where we’ll be staying and studying.

All the miles are a fine price to pay for this experience, though, as is the bug factor. I remember the insects of the tropical Americas, and though I’m not as jumpy around them as I was when I was ten, the mosquitoes are still going to be a pain. Immunizations and vaccinations have been a major focus, especially for parents. My brother and I were recently immunized against yellow fever, and two days before our trip we will start taking anti-malarial pills, which we will need to keep taking during our stay in Peru. Hopefully the bug spray, mosquito netting and covered bodies will be enough to keep the worst of the little buggers off.

Trade with the local Yagua people is also on the horizon. I love bartering, and the artwork and tools the Peruvians craft for trading are truly beautiful, so I’m especially excited for this aspect of the trip. It’s also a great opportunity for me to give a bunch of the shirts I’ve grown out of to people who can use them more. I wish I’d had more time to brush up on my Spanish before leaving, as it is the lingua franca between travelers and the local peoples. I haven’t spoken it to someone who can’t speak English in more than three years, so hopefully my brother, a Spanish student as opposed to my Latin, will be able to converse when I cannot. I’m not too worried about it, though. I have been with many people who do not require a language to strike up a friendship.

I imagine the Peru group will be closer after this adventure as well. Experiences such as walking dozens of feet above the rainforest floor, sharing hours-long plane rides, and seeing spiders larger than your hand–which I anticipate if not necessarily hope for–tend to bring people together. My excitement is building as the push-off date draws near. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the body-hug of rainforest humidity or been have woken by the shrieks of the tropical dawn chorus, and it begins to call to me again as the days tick down till takeoff.

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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! 

Have you ever been awe-struck by nature’s engineering prowess and thought to yourself, “how in the world is that possible?” or “wouldn’t it be great if humans could do that?” Did it ever occur to you to think of nature as a big research and development firm with over 3 million consultants and over 3.8 billion years of experience? Welcome to the world of biomimicry – a world where creative and thoughtful people are looking to nature for inspiration.

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Learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs.

According to Janine Benyus, of the Biomimicry Institute, “…nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with; energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, and more.” Designers, engineers, architects and other innovators are asking the question “What would nature do here?” and are finding not just one new idea but myriad time tested, environmentally appropriate, solutions.

What better place to explore the idea of biomimicry than the Amazonnature’s hotbed of innovation and inspiration?

morpho - croppedTake for example this lovely blue morpho butterfly.  The new “glare-free” e-reader screens were inspired by blue morphos and “mimic” how the wings absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light!

Taking a walk down a rainforest trail takes on a whole new meaning if you thinking like a biomimic.  Each plant and animal you encounter is uniquely adapted to survive and thrive using a minimal amount of resources, creating a minimal amount of waste, and leaving behind a minimal impact on the environment. Every organism a source of inspiration, a blueprint of design, a model of sustainability.

Now imagine using biomimicry as a focus for STEM education – asking your students to study a leaf to learn how to make solar cells or a spider to make resilient fibers.  Imagine them learning how to adhere like a gecko, create color like a butterfly, sequester carbon like a mollusk, and air condition like a leaf cutter ant.

This summer students and teachers will put on their biomimicry hats and prowl the Amazon rainforest in search of inspiration – learning from nature, not just about nature.

If you’d like to learn more about biomimicry and find K-12 teaching resources visit Biomimicry 3.8

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.

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Charles Darwin goes 21st century

Back in the day, science was often relegated to wealthy, self-funded explorers and “gentlemen scientists” the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Newton.  One could argue that they were the original “citizen scientists” but back then you had to have money and time to explore the world and formulate big thoughts. For the average citizen, science was an expensive endeavor accessible to the privileged – and certainly not something in which you were encouraged to participate.

Flash forward 200 years… and imagine that Carlos Darwin, an inquisitive and smart kid from a not-so-wealthy family is able to use a smartphone to document the finches on each of the Galapagos Islands where he lives?  And his cousin Josefina Darwin, is able to send him pictures of finches she is seeing in her backyard in New Jersey?  And they are able to share their photos and contribute their observations of the natural world with people around the globe – including researchers who were looking for changes in species distribution due to climate change.  Now we’re talkin’ citizen science!

What if all those budding “Darwins” in OUR classes and communities used their cell phones for more than Facebook and Snapchat?  What if they spent time outdoors, exploring their backyards, parks, woodlands, and swamps using their mobile phones to document all the biodiversity they can find?  What if there was an app for THAT?

Welcome to the world of Project Noah –Networked Organisms And Habitats.logotype

Backed by National Geographic, Project Noah is mobilizing a new generation of nature explorers and average citizens around the world to capture information on biodiversity.  Now instead of roaming the neighborhood with a butterfly net, collecting jars, and a bulky field guide you can simply take your smart phone and snap pictures using the Project Noah app.  With a few key strokes you can add gps coordinates and field notes and send them whizzing through cyberspace to the Project Noah portal where people from around the world can check out what’s going on in your backyard.  Unsure of what the organism is?  Project Noah “rangers” are on call to help with species identification and natural history notes.

Here at Amazon Workshops, we are thrilled to be partnering with Project Noah to create a virtual field guide to our study sites in the Amazon and are working with educators across the country to bring our Amazon images into their classrooms!

Project Noah’s co-founder, Yasser Ansari, believes that “not only is there an educational need and an environmental need but a deep, deep human need for all of us to reconnect with our planet.”  His goal is to “to bring back that wonderment… to reignite that curiosity for the natural world that we had when we were younger.”

Don’t you think Charles Darwin would agree?  It’s no secret that Mr. Darwin loved poking around the natural world more than the dry academics of the university.

“…no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles… I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas!  It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”   — Charles Darwin

Betcha Mr. Darwin would have appreciated a smartphone with the Project Noah app at this moment!

JOIN THE DISCUSSION!  Are you a citizen scientist?  Do you use Project Noah?  Tell us your thoughts about the power and promise of citizen science!

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?