Photo courtesy: Katie Zimmerman
For Katie Zimmerman’s seventh grade life sciences class, the Peruvian rainforest is closer than you’d think.
Zimmerman, 31, a teacher at Williamsburg Middle School, spent 10 days in and around Iquitos, Peru with Project Amazonas this summer, creating a teaching unit on plant defenses that she brought back to the classroom.
Zimmerman found that plants and trees in Peru have developed spikes and other defense mechanisms to defend against harmful insects. Climate change means that adaptation could occur as temperatures become warmer globally and the insects have a longer livable season.
“Over years, there would be a change in the trees' defenses if climate change is increasing temperatures. Without cold winters to kill insects, trees will have to adapt defenses against insects,” Zimmerman said.
The Hands-on-Amazon project, which had its first trip this year, is part of the educational wing of Project Amazonas. It allows a group of teachers to conduct research and design a project for their students. Project Amazonas also provides medical care and education to Peru’s Amazonian communities.
In Arlington, Zimmerman’s students this spring will engage in the project she created from her Peruvian study. They are currently conducting lab preparation.
“[They] will be calculating the biomass of native Virginia trees, and observing the types of insects that are present on the trees. They will be researching natural defenses against insects of trees in Virginia and comparing that to trees in Peru, which I researched and documented,” Zimmerman said. Biomass is the amount of energy stored in plants and plant-based materials, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“I teach them about trees, plants, and insects that are native to Virginia,” Zimmerman said. “They love being able to do science… and find out the answers themselves,” Zimmerman added.
The seventh grade students are “ecstatic” about it, Zimmerman said.
Williamsburg Principal Ann McCarty is positive about the project. “Anything that can get kids engaged, especially at this age, is great,” McCarty said.
“Every time I go into [Zimmerman’s] classroom, the kids are engaged,” McCarty said.
The Hands-on-Amazon course is accredited through the Heritage Institute at Antioch University, Seattle. The institute is an international training hub for teachers, their website says.
“The idea was to invest more American teachers in the richness and future of the Amazon, and the initial course went extremely well,” said Don Dean, a New Jersey science teacher and Project Amazonas board member. He designed the Hands-On course.
“When the teachers encountered local children, the connection was immediate and deep; all boundaries dissolved. It was more than I expected,” Dean said.
Zimmerman’s class regularly asks questions about the Amazon, and Zimmerman has shown them pictures of the trip.
Although Zimmerman stayed in a hotel during her trip, the Project Amazonas research stations were buried deep in the rainforest, she said.
“You’ll never find it on a map,” Zimmerman said.
Originally from Minnesota, Zimmerman has been teaching at Williamsburg for 10 years.
“Eventually I would like the project to go global, and for students from all over the world to participate, logging information for their region of the world,” Zimmerman said.