When it comes to using interactive videoconference technology to connect students in K-12 classrooms with scientists and experts, Jacalyn Giacalone Willis, founding director of Professional Resources in Science and Mathematics (PRISM), the K-12 education center of Montclair State’s College of Science and Mathematics, is an international innovator.
Since 2003, PRISM’s Rainforest Connection project has linked classrooms with researchers and educators at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama with students, teachers and experts in countries such as the United States, Australia, Belize, Costa Rica, Kenya and Thailand.
Closer to home, in February 2017, Willis reports that there were 29 connections from Panama to New Jersey and three from Bridgewater, N.J., to Kenya. A total of 1,092 students in grades three through nine from eight New Jersey School Districts – including Kearney, Clifton, Galloway, Bridgewater, Orange, East Orange, Hillsdale and Paramus – participated.
“The Rainforest Connection project engages teachers and students in an international conversation about environmental and conservation issues. It demonstrates the interconnectedness of all lives and how we should respect one another’s differences,” says College of Science and Mathematics Acting Dean Lora Billings. “Rainforest Connection provides the first steps in forging global collaborations that can lead to sustainable solutions based on emerging technologies and new scientific discoveries.”
A noted naturalist, Willis visits Panama each February, where she oversees and participates in the Rainforest Connection webcasts while conducting her own research. Willis and her husband were featured in Mysteries of the Rainforest, a Smithsonian Channel documentary that aired in late December that explored the work of scientists who regularly visit the island of Barro Colorado in the Panama Canal.
“The film shows how we investigate what animals are in the rainforest by using camera-traps that have collected more than 1 million photos over 22 years and by walking 100 kilometers every February since 1982 to take a trail census,” she explains. “We have detailed life histories of individual animals. These long-term studies give more insights than the more common one-to-five-year studies and help guide conservation decisions.”
In February 2017, Willis’ “Classrooms Without Walls” project, bolstered by a University Global Education Center grant, expanded the Rainforest Connection by forging sustainable partnerships among teachers, students and scientists in New Jersey, Panama, Madagascar and Kenya.
This February, Willis plans to strengthen the program’s link to Madagascar. “And we will be adding friends in Bhutan,” she says. Additionally, the program will be taking a fresh look at the engineering and technology components of the Panama Canal. “We’ll also explore the use of camera-traps in mammal census-taking, with a comparison with New Jersey’s Morris Canal. Finally, we’ll offer a conservation focus on tapirs and ocelots and their conservation plight in Panama,” Willis says.
For 15 years, Willis has worked to expand her commitment to the innovative Rainforest Connection program. “It’s all about helping kids understand what scientists do and how they figure out the workings of the world around us,” she explains. “Very often we get feedback that children who are not interested in school – or reading, writing or science – change their attitudes when they have a chance to talk with a scientist and ask their own questions about the rainforest and the animals that live there. That attitude change is what we aim for.”
Catalina Villasuso, an educator at Edward T. Bowser, Sr. Elementary School in East Orange, who first made a Rainforest Connection for students in grades two to five in 2007, agrees. “Rainforest Connection brings science to life,” she says. “Our students love being able to see what the scientists study and ask questions and get answers in person. After participating in the video conference, many students express the desire to become scientists themselves and travel abroad.”