April 16, 2012

Future teachers study ecosystems from Phoenix to Panama

Posted: April 16, 2012
Lauren Coffey
ASU student Lauren Coffey observes desert wildlife during a workshop at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center.
Photo by: Jacob Mayfield

For Lauren Coffey and Whitney Clem, the opportunity to travel to Panama and spend a week learning about rainforest ecosystems was too tempting to pass up. The two student teachers in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College were selected for a scholarship enabling them to learn about similarities and differences of biodiversity in Arizona’s deserts and Panama’s rainforests, and to pass this knowledge along to their students in elementary and middle school classrooms.

In earning the Mary Lou Fulton Science Exchange Scholarship, Clem and Coffey are joining eight K-8 teachers from schools in central Phoenix in a yearlong science education program, Desert to Rainforest. There are an additional 10 in-service teachers who have been selected to participate; those individuals live and teach in Panama.

The participating educators share a passion for helping children develop critical thinking skills, science know-how and cultural awareness. Desert to Rainforest will enable them to use powerful new interactive video technology to make connections among middle school students in Phoenix and Panama.

The project is a collaborative initiative of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama (STRI), ASU’s School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Teachers College, as well as Audubon Arizona, in collaboration with Phoenix Public School Districts and the Ministry of Education in Panama. Support comes through a Youth Access Grant from the Smithsonian Institution.

The trip to Panama will take place in July. In late March, the Arizona educators spent a day at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center in central Phoenix. They worked with ASU scientists and Audubon Arizona staff on topics including identification of local desert flora and fauna. They also began their training with the Vidyo videoconferencing technology, using the video interface to interact and work through a lesson plan being developed as part of the project.

“The video component will enable us to build connections between students in Panama and here in Phoenix,” said Coffey, who currently is student-teaching at Valley View School in the Roosevelt School District, as she completes her degree in elementary education with a Diversity in Language and Learning (DLL) endorsement. “I think this is a great addition to the project because it enables middle school students to learn not only about biodiversity but cultural diversity as well.”

Coffey already has demonstrated a commitment to expanding her knowledge of different cultures. Two years ago she spent a semester studying in Seville, Spain, learning Spanish and studying Spanish history and culture.

Clem, meanwhile, is student-teaching at Edison Elementary School in the Phoenix Elementary School District. She will earn Teachers College’s dual degree that leads to certification in special education and elementary education.

“The first workshop in Phoenix was very productive,” Clem said. “I believe this project, including the upcoming trip to Panama, will help me grow immensely as I begin my teaching career. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to learn from expert science teachers here in Arizona, as well as visiting a classroom in Panama.”

“Desert to Rainforest emphasizes the development of core curricula that celebrates life in these two rich ecosystems,” said David Pearson, a research professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, who developed the grant with Mari Koerner, dean of Teachers College, W. Owen MacMillan, STRI dean of academic programs, and STRI coordinator Nelida Gomez.

“The students living in each of these distinctively different environments will use their personal experiences to understand differences and similarities in the habitats in which they live, and they will bring new knowledge home to share with their families,” Pearson said. “The electronically enhanced communication between students in Panama and Phoenix will be led by teachers who have been trained in critical thinking with an intellectual emphasis on sustainable use of biodiversity and the political and economic importance of cultural diversity.”

“When I become a teacher, I want my students to be exposed to what life is like outside the desert, and teach them to appreciate the unique qualities of the world around them,” Coffey said. “Through Desert to Rainforest, I will gain the knowledge I need to become an advocate for environmental awareness and education.”

The Desert to Rainforest project builds on a strong existing partnership between ASU and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Launched in 2010, the collaboration has deepened research opportunities, as well as graduate and undergraduate student training, in biological sciences; critical-thinking; social societies in humans and social insects; sustainability and ecosystem services; genetics and regeneration; culture, language, design and the arts. Central to the project is the creation of innovation in international education reform and a global classroom, research and educational exchanges that extend, virtually and interactively, to bridge international borders, traditional educational and disciplinary boundaries.

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