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By Paul Lonardo
Gallaher Middle School science teacher Jane Ramos has been teaching science at Gallagher Middle School for twenty-one years. Abigail Marsella is an eighth-grade student with an interest in science. The two recently returned from an extraordinary excursion they took in the Amazon rainforest in Peru as part of a scientific research expedition.
It all began with a program called JASON Learning, an award-winning curricula that places students in challenging, real-world situations where they are connected with and mentored by leading STEM professionals. JASON was founded in 1989 by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, the noted oceanographer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic. JASON provides curriculum and learning experiences in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for K-12 students, and high-quality professional development for teachers.
“In addition to that,” Jane says, “every year JASON provides for five or six field expeditions, a couple of them are in the country, and some involve international travel. They will arrange for five or six groups of students and teachers to take part in these expeditions.”
It’s for middle school and high school students, who are provided with an opportunity to work with researchers and scientists out in the field.
“They do actual science work out there,” Jane says. “It’s a really cool opportunity.”
It’s a nation-wide program, so there are schools all around the country using JASON, and getting chosen to take part in an expedition is not easy. There is a lengthy application process, and students and teachers are in competition with each other to win a spot on one of the expeditions. However, things were more favorable for Smithfield this year because they are in a partnership with JASON, and as part of that partnership, the town was promised a spot for a teacher and a student. With that opportunity available, it still left open the decision of which Smithfield student and teacher got to go on the trip.
“Last year there were six science teachers in the running,” Jane explains, “and we talked about it. I have to say that I am so thankful to all my science teachers who I work with and who told me that it was my turn, and that I should go.”
Jane submitted her paperwork, and Abby did the same. The eighth-grader had a choice to participate in an expedition somewhere in the United States or somewhere outside the nation’s border, and she chose the latter. Soon after she was chosen she learned that she would be going to Peru. She was excited, but nervous, knowing that this was not going to be a vacation. She was headed to the Amazon rainforest in Peru. This is the largest rainforest in the world, and while there is animal life of all kinds in the Amazon, more than 90% of the animal species there are insects. A large portion of the insects are constituted from a variety of beetles, but there is also an incredible amount of butterfly species as well, which was what Jane would be studying during her time there. By way of comparison, all of Europe has some 321 butterfly species, while the Manú National Park in Peru alone contains 1,300 species.
This Amazon Expedition was comprised of 10 people; 5 teachers and 5 students, who did everything together. They were split into 4 groups to do different research projects, and the research groups were made based on individual interests. Abby’s research was focused on the diversity of the ants in the canopy, and the different locations and heights in the trees where they existed. She compiled data and collected samples of ants using a handheld aspirator, which acts as a small vacuum, and would take the ants back to the lodge to examine under a microscope. The ten students and teachers worked with two “host researchers” known as The Bug Chicks, who worked alongside JASON on this expedition.
“They work a lot with students to get them to overcome any fears they have of bugs, and help others understand how important bugs are to the world,” says Abby, who admits that she was more than a bit wary of bugs, but her experience in Peru has made her less fearful of them.
Abby saw many different kinds of insects, including large millipedes, tarantulas, and walking sticks, among others. The days were full and the groups, all of them known as Argonauts (based on the Greek myth, Jason and the Argonauts) kept busy. They started the day very early in the morning going out on in boats, either on the Amazon River or the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon River, to bird-watch. They had guides with them on the boats, and at night they went on hikes through the darkness of the rainforest.
“In between,” Abby says, “we each developed our own scientific research. There were four different groups that each had a different focus on insects, and we developed scientific research around that.”
One of the more amazing sights they witnessed was the emergence of pink river dolphins from the waters of the Amazon. These fresh water dolphins are rarely seen, and are distinguishable by their pinkish skin color. Another amazing experience was crossing a canopy walkway, which was made of rope and mesh and suspended near the tops of the trees.
“There are thirteen different platforms you could climb up higher and higher in the rainforest,” Jane says. “We were up as high as 120 feet in the canopy of the rainforest. It was incredible.”
Jane has been using JASON Learning at Gallagher Middle School for the last twelve years, and has seen the videos of others students and teachers, called Argonauts, who have participated in similar expeditions working with scientists all around the world.
“Now that I’ve actually been an Argonaut, it blows my mind that I got an opportunity to do what I saw all these previous groups do for so long. And now I’ve been one of those people, and I just feel very honored to have had this experience as a JASON teacher Argonaut. I feel like I am part of an exclusive group of people. That’s very special.”
Jane encourages more students to look into these expeditions and apply. The experiences Jane and Abby had in the Amazon rainforest in Peru is something that comes along once in a lifetime, and cannot be duplicated in a classroom. And while we’ve had quite a bit of rain around here this fall, it is nothing like what is experienced in the Amazon rainforest. Although it amazingly only rained twice while the group was in Peru, their guide told them it rained 250 days a year. The new Argonauts from Gallagher Middle School are happy not to come across a lot of the insects they encountered in the rainforest. However, both Jane and Abby, along with their entire group, were all changed by the Bug Chicks and the experience. Jane says that they have all become bug dorks, and that whenever they came across some kind of bug, they all gathered around in excitement to see it.
For more information about JASON, it is available online at https://www.jason.org/