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Bags are packed, equipment checked, guidebooks read and re-read.  We are ready! We already know more than the average Joe about the Amazon.  If we were preparing for a test, we’d expect an A+.  But as the plane slips below the clouds, and we catch our first glimpse of the rainforest…a vast carpet of green with only the snaking curves of the Amazon River to give a sense of scale, we begin to realize we don’t really understand this place. This is the place that overwhelmed Charles Darwin, who once described it as “one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse.”  The PBS documentary movies describe it as crawling, slithering, clinging, and jumping with amazing wildlife – much of it unkown to science. This is the place we’ve been told is critical to the health of our planet…a place that is rapidly disappearing unless we take action..but we don’t have the first clue how to even begin…

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As travelers to the Amazon, we are fortunate to experience one of the world’s most astonishing and important ecosystems – the tropical rainforest. In preparation for this epic adventure, we have done our homework and can reel off the facts. We know that the world’s rainforests:

• support more than ½ of the world’s biodiversity;
• provide new medicines, foods, and other products of global economic value;
• impact local, regional, and global climates-protecting against floods, drought, and erosion;
• store vast amounts of carbon and help to mitigate global climate change;
• provide food and shelter to indigenous people;
• and are a source of inspiration and wonder.

We know as the world’s largest intact rainforest, the Amazon is a critically important global resource.  We’ve read that it is unrivalled in its scale and its complexity. We might even know that it makes up of 50% of the world’s remaining rainforest and encompasses an area greater than the continental USA.

If we are really serious about our studies, we also know that the Amazon harbors least 10% of the word’s known biodiversity, with new species being discovered at the rate of 1 every 3 days (more than 1,200 new species in the last decade). We know that the Amazon River system accounts for more than 15% of the world’s fresh water and its forests store more than 90 billion metric tons of carbon. We can even state with some confidence that approximately 350 ethnic groups are sheltered by its forests and sustained by its waters – and that a few “uncontacted” groups still exist.

GREAT! We can recite all these facts and more. Surely we deserve an A+ and can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. But wait…what job is well done? Has our fact finding led to something greater? Has it made a difference? Have we forged any kind of connection to this place will move us beyond factual recall and into the realm of inspiration, wonder, and action?

Last week we introduced the topic of place-based learning and how it can be used to move us beyond factual awareness and into active participation and deep understanding. In Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change, Mitchell Thomashow, a place-based education guru, suggests that to be actively engaged in understanding a place you must acquire

“…a range of facilities – the willingness to plunge your senses into the living landscape, the ability to ask good, scientific questions and develop approaches to finding empirical answers; the imaginative capacity to use the natural world as inspiration for artwork, photography, stories, essays, music, and poetry; the open-mindedness and reflective ability to be perennially engaged by the wonder, insight, and meaning derived of from your observations.”

These are the ingredients which will open the doors to understanding a place – even a place like the Amazon.

We are looking forward to “plunging into the living landscape” of the Amazon this summer, armed with the facts, but ready to ask good questions, ignite our imaginations, and engage with wonder. We are ready to get that A+ in Amazon 101!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION! Leave a reply below. Have you been to the Amazon? Are you going? What questions do you have? What do you want to know more about? How do you make meaning in new and different places and situations?

Ahhh…Amazonia.  A magical word that conjures up images of snaking rivers, soaring trees, and strange wildlife.  Surely if there is a place that can inspire wonder and curiosity, it is this.  And yet…many visitors struggle to make sense of it all, to put it into perspective, to find a scale that makes it understandable and manageable, to find a way to meaningfully connect.  It seems that many find it difficult to immerse themselves and fully experience the world right in front of them.

Now imagine if you were blind.  How would you begin to understand and connect to this strange new world without the sense of sight?  I recently finished A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts, a remarkable book about a remarkable man who traveled – completely blind to some of the most remote and wild regions of the world – often by himself.  Needless to say, it got me thinking – and questioning! 

How does one typically develop a sense of a place?  How do I connect with the places I visit every day or once-in-a-lifetime?  How do others connect?  What ways of making connections are overlooked or under-utilized? Does a deepening sense of place lead to action? involvement? As educators and naturalists, what is our role in helping our students develop a “sense of a place” and what implications does this have for teaching and learning?  How can we facilitate total immersion in a place?

Total Immersion of 2012 Amazon Educators

Total Immersion of 2012 Amazon Educators

According to the Center for Ecoliteracy, place-based learning begins with asking questions such as, “Where am I? What is the natural and social history of this place? How does this place fit into the larger world?”

IMG_3602All great questions, but it seems to me, as stated, they barely scratch the surface.  The real power of place-based learning comes when these questions are used to not only develop a student’s awareness of the world around them, but to deepen their understanding that they are active participants and not passive observers of the places they live and the places they visit.   Planting and nurturing this sense of awareness, this personal responsibility to a place, will allow real and lasting transformation to take root.

As we prepare for our upcoming 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon, we will be using these Vital Venture tips for getting started with place-based learning to focus the development of our field sessions.  You can use these just as easily in your own classroom or own backyard!

  • Make it personal. Make personal connections to your community and environment through research, personal reflection, and exploration.
  • Find out what is going on.  Identify local issues or ongoing projects related to concepts you are studying in the classroom or exploring in the field – “real world” examples provide context, life, and meaning.
  • Find out who your local “experts” are. Deepen understanding by engaging with local professionals from a variety of backgrounds and ask them to share their perspectives on the issue at hand.
  • Investigate. Engage in independent, personalized research and enlist the support and guidance of the “experts” in your community.
  • Take action.  Apply your learning and serve your community. Work with community members to help solve a local problem.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!  Leave a reply below. How do you connect to the place you call home or the places you’ve visted?  How do you use place-based learning in your curriculum?

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?

Meet Dr. Molina (Mo) Walters

Clinical Associate Professor, Arizona State University, Mary Lou Fulton Teacher College

Dr. Mo is a dynamo and over the last two summers we’ve had the pleasure of spending time in the Amazon with her.  Her passion for education is contagious! As an elementary and secondary science methods professor her energy and enthusiasm for developing the next generation of exceptional educators is evident in everything she does.   We are super excited that Mo will co-lead our 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon!   We asked Dr. Mo to share her thoughts on the magical interface of the Amazon, science education, and the facilitation of wonder.

Mo, you’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Amazon over the last two summers. What is it about the Amazon that has captivated you and compels you to keep coming back? 

The Amazon is a magical place.  My first visit took my breath away.  I was then and still am awed and enlightened by its grandeur, beauty, and diversity.  Few places on earth can rival the rich diversity, both cultural and ecological of the Amazon rainforest.  It’s an outdoor classroom that will teach you about life, your place in the world, and about yourself. 

Next summer you are heading up our Educator Academy in the Amazon.  As you prepare to lead that field experience, what is the one thing, the most important thing, you want participants to take from their time in the Amazon?

The Amazon is at the heart of our planet and all life.  What we do and how we live will impact all other earth systems.  As educators and individuals we can make a difference!

This quote reminds me of you, “…the role of (an) educator is subtle – not to just raise awareness, but to encourage perception and facilitate wonder.” (Mitchell Thomashow).  As a  “teacher of teachers” your job at ASU  is to prepare the next generation of classroom teachers.  How do help your students balance the demands of high stakes testing and the tidal wave of standards reform with their role as “facilitators of wonder”?

High stakes testing will always contribute challenges to teaching and learning.  The variables that contribute to these challenges are many.  However, the standards that inform the development of high stakes tests emphasize questioning, problem solving, inquiry, and applying those skills to science content via real world applications.   My goal with students, of all ages and in all settings, is to stimulate and facilitate their own sense of wonder and curiosity by offering them many opportunities to question, explore, and take risks. 

 I help my students develop a sense wonder through inquiry-based discovery activities and then they practice demonstrating their own learning – a model that is transferable to the classroom. I actively model this strategy by sharing my own joy and enthusiasm for learning, stimulating the students’ natural curiosity and making the connections between this innate characteristic to know and understand our world with demonstration what we think and comprehend.  As a facilitator, one of the ways I model my own sense of wonder is through what I call “Think Alouds”.  My Think Alouds consist of my posing questions, demonstrating my own thought processes, and revealing my own sense of wonder.

 A sense of wonder leads to exploration which opens the door to discovery and ultimately the construction of knowledge.  Through this construction of knowledge, deep and lasting understanding is attained.  That, I believe should be the goal of all standards-based education and testing!

Well said Dr. Mo, well said!   Can’t wait to join you in the Amazon next summer during the 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon!