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Teachers in the Jungle: The Inquiry in Rain Forests Professional Development Program

“Kids love technology and they love videos,”Dr. Joe Levine says. If anyone knows this firsthand, he does: Dr. Levine spent years working for PBS and NOVA creating a variety of popular science documentaries and television series. (He is also a co-author of Miller & Levine Biology, the most widely used high-school biology textbook in the United States.) Today, in addition to updating the textbook, Dr. Levine spends two weeks of every summer in the rain forests of Costa Rica, guiding K-12 science teachers in creating their own experiments and producing educational videos.

The professional development program is called Inquiry in Rain Forests. Run by Dr. Levine and veteran biology educator Dr. Barbara Bentley through the Organization for Tropical Studies, Inquiry in Rain Forests hosts a cadre of up to twenty science teachers every summer.

The program aims to model for educators a strategy of teaching science by doing science. This perspective is often lost in a classroom environment, but is easy to reconnect with at the La Selva field station in Costa Rica. “One of the things that the program seeks to do is to reorient teachers away from the delivery of science as a long list of isolated facts,” Dr. Levine says.

Another goal is to show teachers how technology can be used in science classrooms. It’s clear that young people love technology, Dr. Levine notes, but “at the same time, the knee-jerk reaction for educators has been to squelch this technophilia in students at school.” Yet because videos, by their very nature, are most interesting when they show something happening, they are “an ideal way to get teachers and students to focus on the process of science.”

Though scores of professionally developed science documentaries and videos exist, using these in the classroom and simply “showing David Attenborough wandering around the Hawaiian Islands is very limiting,” Dr. Levine says, referencing the famed British nature documentary host. Dr. Levine argues that if science teachers are instead able to create their own videos that show themselves in exotic environments, students will be able to connect with the material in a much more immediate way.

Inquiry in Rain Forests has been training educators for over eight years, and is now in working to expand its scholarship program to support more participants. The program particularly encourages applications from teachers who are minorities or who work with underserved communities, especially as past participants noted the great benefits for everyone of being in a diverse group.

“This is one of the few field programs for teachers in biology to do their own science,” rather than to carry out someone else’s work, remarks Dr. Levine. And with expanded scholarship support, Dr. Levine and Dr. Bentley hope that Inquiry in Rain Forests can become a model for professional development for science teachers.


Originally posted on AAAS Science NetLinks.