How the Rainforest Connection Began

Introduction: Jackie Giacalone Willis and Gregory E. Willis go to Panama every January to do a long term monitoring project supported by the Environmental Studies Project of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. They carry out a walking trail census of mammals on Barro Colorado Island, located in Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal Zone. Using standardized techniques for recording sightings of mammals, Jackie and Greg record data for at least 100km of census for one month during the dry season. They also have used automatic cameras to take photos of animals that are elusive, used videotaping to record behaviors, and have radiotracked animals to learn more details of their daily activities.

When the field station on Barro Colorado island was equipped with e-mail connections to the rest of the world, it became feasible to run an on-line project with classes that are also connected electronically. Jackie, during most of the year, is the director of a center of Montclair State University in New Jersey called PRISM, which stands for Professional Resources In Science & Mathematics. When partner schools of the project in East Orange and Jersey City began to come on line in rapidly increasing numbers, Jackie saw the potential to develop a relationship with students that might help make science more real, more exciting, and more friendly to students than the traditionally-held views of science. A set of strategies and goals were laid out for THE RAINFOREST CONNECTION. Teachers who had participated in Summer Science Institutes were notified that, if the connection from Barro Colorado proved to be reliable, then they could send their email addresses and expect regular correspondence from a scientific team studying mammals in a rainforest.

As it turned out, the lines remained open, the teachers and their classes responded, and Josh Baron at Stevens Institute helped us along by expanding out network of classes and constructing a website. The project succeeded beyond our dreams! Greg provided a major part of the legwork in collecting data on mammals and reporting crocodile activity. Jackie wrote a lot in between census walks, collated the data, and contacted expert friends who helped with the responses to the floors of questions from students. It was a major collaboration by people in different countries and different walks of life. As you read the journal entries, you will see the kinds of responses that came from the classes. We could not use all the mail in the daily entries, but the assortment is representative of the thoughtful, concerned, inquisitive, insatiable, exciting, and funny things that people wrote to us. We hope that our responses were effective in relaying a sense of what we were doing, what we saw, why we feel the research is important, and why the beauty and complexity of the rainforest is of incalculable value to humans.