They assumed crossing from Columbia into Brazil would be easy. Just pay the tariff, get a stamp in their passports and be back in a boat, headed down the Amazon River. However, to their surprise, there was an additional fee reserved for U.S. citizens, and they were told they had to come up with an additional $1,200 to continue. Unsure if they could enter Brazil at all, they also learned there were two separate, back-to-back independence holidays—one for Columbia, one for Brazil, so nothing was open for several days. It seemed hopeless. They were stuck in political limbo and all they wanted to do was continue their travels, conduct a few long-distance middle-school science projects with kids back on Maui and maybe get to see a caiman (an Amazonian crocodile) up close.
Down on their luck, the two explorers—Maui educators Amanda Wilson and Jill Pridesmore—checked into a rundown hostel and began meandering through the sweat-drenched outskirts of a Columbian town called Leticia. They couldn’t stand being away from their beloved Amazon, and eventually took a guided day trip into the jungle nearby. That same day, on their way back to the hostel, just when they thought their trip might truly be over, they saw it: a sign on a stately building that read “SINCHI: Instituto de Investigaciones Cientificas de Amazonias,” which, translated, means the “Institute for Studying Amazonian Science.”
Teeming with curiosity, Amanda and Jill headed through the gate and marched toward the front doors. The doors slid open, and they were met by a wave of cold air and a stern-looking security guard. In Spanish, they explained their predicament. They were on a trip down the Amazon to study the jungle and its lush biodiversity. Their project, aptly named Jungle to Jungle, brought them to the region for a comparison study between the Amazon and the Maui rainforests. There were students on Maui waiting to hear from them via the Internet. But instead of continuing forward with their project, they were stuck in Leticia and generally bummed out.
The guard’s face softened, and he soon returned with a friendly, English-speaking microbiologist named Clara Pena. Pena spent the afternoon with the two explorers, who were able to interview her on video and get an official tour of SINCHI. She also connected them with a local schoolteacher who welcomed them into her classroom to give a lesson on Hawaii and its science, culture and language. Most importantly, Pena provided a solid answer to one of Jill and Amanda’s most burning questions about the Amazon: “People say the Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Why is that?”
WHY IS THAT?
That’s the question that guides every step of the Jungle to Jungle project; it’s constantly asked about anything curious they encounter during their explorations (see sidebar below for some examples).
Regarding the Amazon’s unparalleled biodiversity, Pena happily supplied an answer. “There are two main reasons… The first is that in this region, the Amazon River first went to the Pacific Ocean. After that, the Andean Mountains came up, and it blocked the way of the river, so the river had to go to the other side. That means this river has contributions from the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans at the same time. The other reason is that during the glaciation times, this part of the world was not frozen… It was like a big reservoir for [plant and animal] species.”
To say the least, Amanda and Jill were stoked. Their explorer mindset—even in the face of adversity—had led them to one of the most important moments of their trip. Afterward, Jill edited together two videos—one of the Clara interview and one of their encounter with the school children—and posted them on their public WordPress blog (jungletojungle.org). Within minutes it was blasted out on Twitter and Facebook as well, allowing hundreds of followers to learn of their challenges and findings. Later that day, they introduced the video live via Skype and it aired on Maui’s local public access station, Akaku. Of course, the students on Maui were thrilled to hear from their friends in the Amazon.
That’s what’s so special about these ladies and their project. Not only are they uncovering the latest in biological science and natural history for the purposes of inspiring and educating Maui’s youth and the interested public, they’re also employing the latest communication and social media technologies. Like modern-day Darwins, they collect photos and videos of exotic flora and fauna, and conduct fact-finding interviews with scientists and experts along the way—and all of it is accessible back here on the Valley Isle. Most importantly, they create a new avenue for the youth living in both jungles to meet each other and swap information.
As for their Columbian border predicament: after waiting out the local holidays, begging for help from immigration workers and pulling a few sly moves, Amanda and Jill were soon back on another slow boat down the Amazon.
“Education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession.” That’s a quote from John Dewey, a reformer and philosopher who helped shape many modern educational concepts—things like charter schools and interdisciplinary learning programs. As early as 1897, he emphasized that the teacher’s traditional concern with delivering knowledge needed to be balanced with a concern for students’ actual experiences and active learning. He’s one of the founding fathers of “hands-on” education.
When substitute teacher and eternal student Amanda Wilson started working in the Maui public school system a few years ago, she immediately began looking for ways to expand beyond the classroom and into the incredible “natural laboratory” that surrounds us.
While an undergrad at the University of Southern California, Amanda immersed herself in studies surrounding childhood and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). She soon realized that the problem with kids and their attention spans could very well be a symptom of the “sit down and shut up” model, which dates back over 100 years to the Little House on the Prairie-style one-room schoolhouse. For Amanda, this is incongruous with the rest of a modern young person’s life.
“Why are we still doing education the old way, when everything else is advanced?” she asks. “It makes sense that kids are bouncing off the walls when everything else they experience is faster and uses more technology.”
She set out to explore new pedagogies (models of learning), and in 2009 partnered with her tech-savvy step-sister and close friend Jill Pridemore to create Jungle to Jungle, a nonprofit, student-driven, “project-based” learning initiative that uses travel and technology to encourage kids on Maui to see the world through the eyes of an explorer.
The project sends Amanda and Jill to a different exotic locale each year, where they act essentially as “avatars” for Maui students. In fall 2009, the duo made their Amazon trek, stopping to meet exotic animals, plants and cultures along the way. As students at Kalama Intermediate School’s science club followed them via the Internet, they were able to guide the expedition, ask questions and do their own research comparing the jungles of Central and South America to those on Maui.
Coordinating with science teachers on Maui, Jill and Amanda create custom curricula that can be integrated into existing classes. The emphasis is on learning outside of the box, allowing students to choose what they want to investigate and providing experiences that go beyond the traditional classroom environment. Amanda and Jill say they work closely with students and instructors before and after the travel period, to ensure a seamless integration of what is being learned and explored.
After a successful first year working with teacher Maggie Prevenas and the Kalama Intermediate science club, the Jungle to Jungle project recently announced a new partnership with the South Maui Learning Ohana and Kihei Charter School’s Middle School Academy, meaning 150 new students will participate in the 2010 program. Kihei Charter in particular is already focused on project-based learning, making it a natural fit for Jungle to Jungle.
“We are so proud to be partnered with a school that is doing such good work in education on Maui,” says Jill. “South Maui Learning Ohana and Kihei Charter School have really impressed us with their openness to new ideas and methods.”
For the 2010 program, Amanda and Jill have set their sights on the island of Borneo, which contains one of the oldest jungles on the planet. Located smack-dab in the center of Southeast Asia, Borneo is home to three different countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Together with the students of Kihei Charter, they’ll be on the trails of strange and amazing creatures like the rare clouded leopard, the giant (and endangered) orangutan, the pygmy elephant and the enigmatic Borneo rhino.
“Scientists are still finding new species there to this day, so we never know what we’ll find,” says Amanda in her usual infectiously excited tone.
The Bornean orangutan is of particular interest to the project. Threatened by massive deforestation—done to make room for palm oil plantations, mines and dams—these rare great apes are being pushed to the brink, along with countless other animal species and the native people who call the jungle home.
Naturally, conservation and sustainability become major concerns for the students participating in Jungle to Jungle. The world’s jungles may only cover 6 percent of the globe, but they contain approximately 57 percent of the species on Earth. They store tens of thousands of years of carbon in their depths, and are essential contributors to the air we breathe and the medicines that heal us. If they cease to exist, there is a good chance we will, too.
“We teach sustainability through awareness,” says Jill. “It is our hope that by meeting the species that live in the jungles around the world, and seeing how they compare and contrast to the ones in our backyards, participants in our project will grow to love and value them all a whole lot more. Then, perhaps, they will care about making sure they don’t go away forever.”
As Maui’s geographically isolated youth begin to understand the interconnectedness of the Earth’s ecosystems and to make comparisons between their ‘aina and places they may never get to visit in person, the isolation melts away. Using technology, they can see, feel and study what is going on thousands of miles away.
Even more important than science, students need to learn to work in a community, in a realm that mimics the modern social world and the future they will meet when they graduate. Our experiences are not limited to a particular building, geographic location or one group of people; technology allows us to intermingle freely across borders. Programs like Jungle to Jungle offer students a chance to learn in a realm that is more real and dynamic than a one-room schoolhouse could ever be.
“We’re in the 21st century,” says Amanda. “Why do our classrooms have to be square?”
Upcoming Jungle to Jungle events:
Friday, March 5, 6-8pm
“Talk story” at Akaku, free admission
333 Dairy Road, Kahului
Sunday, March 7, 6-9pm
Fundraiser dinner at Spice & Rice
824 Kokomo Road, Haiku, free admission
Jungle to Jungle loves wild animals.
Why is that? [Well, there are so many reasons!] They are each unique creatures, just like us humans, with their own lessons to teach.
Google Earth has helped in the discovery of nine new species: one butterfly,one snake, and seven birds.
Why is that? Before scouring some of the free global satellite photography, researchers hadn’t even known a place called Mount Mabu existed. It actually wasn’t on the map. Once discovered thanks to Goodle Earth’s free software, the team organized an expedition that would encounter these animals for the first time.
Jungle to Jungle has its sights set on Borneo for Fall 2010.
Why is that? It is one of the most dense and ancient jungles, is extremely biodiverse, and is in the midst of big changes. Because of industrialization, the face of Borneo will change forever, starting this summer.
Snakes have forked tongues.
Why is that? There are two holes in the roof of a snake’s mouth, leading to what is called the “Jacobson organ”. The two tips of the tongue deposit olfactory information there.
There are no “invasive species” in the Amazon.
Why is that? Nothing can “invade” the green fortress that is the Amazon like it can on a small island. Big old jungles like it have their own set of rules all inhabitants must follow. If one is disobeyed, the offending species will inevitably die off (with the exception of one particularly determined mammal).
Sharks almost never get sick.
Why is that? They have a very simple immune system that is far superior to humans’ although scientists are still not sure why.
Jungles are the most biodiverse places on the planet.
Why is that? Scientists actually do not have an answer for this one. They are still working on it. For now, there are only hypotheses. One of these, for example, is that insulated jungles such as the Congo and the Amazon never completely froze during the ice ages. Species were spared and could continue reproducing and mutating uninterrupted.
We need bats.
Why is that? They are the exclusive pollinators of many fruit-bearing plants as well as eating metric tons of insects nightly.
The Amazon rainforest is considered the “lungs of the planet”.
Why is that? Because its trees provide more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen.
Kids in the Amazon haven’t ever seen a school bus.
Why is that? They ride “school boats” to school instead.
Dolphins and whales “sleep” only half their brains at a time, switching sides after two hours.
Why is that? The bottlenose dolphin, for example, uses the alert hemisphere to watch for predators, obstacles, and other animals. It also signals the animal when to rise to the surface for a fresh breath of air.
There are some animals in the Amazon river who can trace their ancestry back to the Pacific Ocean, while others’ family trees hail from the Atlantic.
Why is that? The Amazon used to flow into the Pacific long before the Andes Mountains were formed. Once they were created the giant river reversed direction giving creatures from the Atlantic a chance to adapt to river living.
Measuring three feet across, the largest flower in the world Raffelsia arnoldii smells like rotting flesh.
Why is that? Carrion is a wonderful and tempting odor to this flower’s pollinator: the fly.