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The expedition team heads down a river in the Amazon basin.
Some days, the daily journals from Classroom Connect's AmazonQuest Web site read like a cross between Blue Lagoon and Indiana Jones:
A big part of the Classroom Connect Quests is meeting children and learning about their lives.
The sometimes perilous adventures and enchanting descriptions from AmazonQuest expedition members are intriguing and fun and keep students coming back for more. But teachers like Fred Ankersen of Florida's Space Coast Middle School wouldn't be advocates of the quests if they didn't also spur rigorous and independent intellectual inquiry, summon skills in many subjects, and leave students with a curiosity about and a better understanding of the wide world around them. "Kids are willing to explore," says Ankersen.
Classroom Connect, an online education resource, hosts two quests a year in which a team that includes an expedition leader, science writer, anthropologist, producer, videographer, editor, photographer, new media specialist, local guides, and $100,000 worth of video equipment visit the far reaches of the globe. Thousands of students in classrooms around the world tag along via the Internet. Expeditions so far have included AustraliaQuest, IslandQuest, MayaQuest, AfricaQuest, AsiaQuest, AmericaQuest, GalapagosQuest, and currently, GreeceQuest.
Last fall, the destination was Peru's Amazon River basin in a quest to "explore some of the wonders of the Amazon, from its ancient civilizations and diverse cultures to its unique wildlife." As student questers were told, "Together, we will canoe down rivers, hike along muddy trails, and climb into the canopy to explore and learn." And when the team says "together," it means "together": "You'll direct our team each week, set our course and help us solve dilemmas and make decisions. You'll talk with some of the world's top scientists and help answer scientific mysteries in the hopes of making new discoveries."
The expedition team carries about $100,000 worth of video and other multimedia gear.
Daily movies and team updates that include facts ranging from number of feet of dental floss used by team members to soil nutrients kept computer-bound students apprised of quest progress. Student polls determined a variety of expedition decisions, including what to explore.
"We'll be spending time this week at a Machiguenga Indian village called Timpia," team anthropologist John Fox wrote on Day 6 of the expedition. "What should I do?
A: Go out with local indigenous people to find medicinal herbs and plants of the forest. Learn about and report on traditional Amazonian medicine.
B: Meet with a Machiguenga shaman to explore shamanism and the rituals and beliefs of the Machiguenga.
C: Investigate closely the realities of ecotourism for indigenous peoples like the Machiguenga. Does it help them -- or not?"
Sixty percent of the students responding to the survey voted for A, and so that's what Fox did.
Team leader Dan Buettner makes a friend.
"When it's a topic students are interested in, they do their best work," says Denise Woloszyn, a sixth-grade teacher at Sward School in Oak Lawn, Illinois. "I see them get really, really excited. And I think it makes the people in these different places and different cultures more real to them. I really think it helps them understand problems in other places and makes them think about solutions."
Dan Buettner, expedition leader, often posed ethical questions based on his encounters with local people. He was presented with a primitive stone ax from a wizened Peruvian gold prospector grateful for the Swiss Army knife given to him by Buettner.
"On the one hand, we've been making the point that people should neither buy, pick up, or steal ancient artifacts. It's a practice that on the whole destroys sites and erases history, and it's considered generally unethical," Buettner wrote. "On the other hand, Andres presented me with a heartfelt gift, which I accepted. Now that I'm stuck with it, what do I do?"
Forty-seven percent of students voted to "just keep it and accept it in the spirit it was intended." Since that choice got the biggest vote, that's what Dan did.
Kids' Profiles on the Quest Web site tell about the children met on the trips.
Candyce Schmidt, a technology teacher at Baltimore's Meadowood Education Center, a school for students who have not been successful in the traditional school setting, says "Dan's Dilemmas" spark heated and thoughtful debate among her students, especially when they concern kids close to their own age. "They were fascinated by how people lived," says Schmidt. In response to the quest, her students made a computer chart about similarities and differences between themselves and children from the Amazon basin regarding housing, education, number of siblings, and other attributes.
"They get the sense that kids around the world are interested in the same things, even though those kids may have chickens walking through their house or no electricity," Schmidt says. "They still go to school. They still have brothers and sisters. They still do homework."
Schmidt says the quests are particularly beneficial for her students, who may have been at severe risk of dropping out of school or been expelled from a traditional school. They're so interested in the subject matter and technology that they concentrate and stay on task better than they do in some other classes. "I can't tell you a thing I don't like about it. You could teach an entire curriculum -- math, science, social studies, English, and writing -- and make use of technology."
The site itself has a wealth of activities and information. Students can guess the Mystery Photo or Mystery Sound, delve into a more complex scientific question through Making a Discovery, or set the style of the movie (OprahQuest, DianeSawyerQuest, or SurvivorQuest). They can chat with other students or experts -- or serve as experts themselves -- write the Quest Quiz, read about myths and legends, use the Quest library, or head for the ever-popular feature, Gross and Disgusting.
Village life is explored and shared with students watching on their classroom computers.
On Day 14, students were asked to address the practice of geophagy -- dirt-eating by birds and mammals, including some humans. "Especially in the Peruvian Amazon, it's common to see thousands of parrots at a clay lick, stuffing themselves with soil before going off to spend the day foraging," wrote Jamie Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust. Gilardi offered his own explanation for dirt-eating and responded to student responses posted on the Web site, assigning a coveted gold star to a few especially thoughtful answers.
"You make three good points here," Gilardi wrote to sixth graders at
"I think [corresponding with an expert] adds a whole other dimension to what's going on in the classroom," says Wallace J. Nichols, director of the WiLDCOAST conservation group and a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences. "Kids have questions that teachers can't answer and static textbooks can't answer. You can find answers to some of these questions on the Internet, but there's something much more magical and mysterious and exciting about getting an answer from a real person."
Benefits accrue to the experts, too. "It's really great to find another use for the knowledge you accumulate," says Nichols. "If you can plug into kids' education early and share what you know, it's exciting."
Life in a tent on AmazonQuest.
Some classes also take the project far beyond what is on the Web site. Ankersen's Cocoa, Florida, sixth graders set up an ecotourism project with a Guatemalan school in which different groups of students represented the animals, the tour operators, and the scientists. They got a lot of the research done, but the collaboration stopped just short of completion when the Guatemalan school year ended -- months before the end of the Florida school year. Ankersen says such glitches still need to be worked out in international collaborations.
But he is sold on the quests for a host of reasons, including the understanding gained of other cultures, the connections that pull together so many different subject areas, the motivation that comes with having an outside audience, and the freedom to explore that results from strong motivation.
"I've died and gone to teacher heaven," he says.
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