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Mission to the Amazon

12.000 Students Experience Research, Life in the Amazon Rainforest

By Ricarose Roque

Associate Features Editor

For some students entering a project-based learning experience, they’ll only go as far as the Athena cluster or the 8.02 TEAL room. But the students of Mission 2006 went as far as the lush forests of the Amazon.

From fishing for piranhas to hiking under the tall canopies of the rainforest, this group of students had a spring break that was tough to beat.

As a part of Terrascope, an alternative freshman program, Mission 2006 (12.000), aimed at project-based learning and presented students with problems under the context of earth systems and understanding their physical, chemical and biological processes.

“Each year we give our group of freshmen a problem that can only be approached through interdisciplinary means,” said Co-director of Terrascope and Professor of Geology Kip V. Hodges. “This year we asked them to design a way for a long term preservation of the Amazon ecosystem.”

At the end of the fall semester, students formally presented their solutions, where they were then surprised with the Amazon trip announcement.

“Earlier we had told students that only a select few would be able to visit the Amazon,” said Hodges. “However, all of us involved had trouble deciding who should go and finally we decided to open up the opportunity to anyone who cared to go.”

Onward to the Amazon

After a trip down to Manaus, Brazil, students stayed at a hotel in Rio Negro.

“The hotel was located in a very flooded region of the Amazon,” Hodges said. “The hotel was practically held by stilts and buildings were connected through these boulevards, so you were never really touching the ground at any one time.”

The students visited the Impa Tropical Forest Fragmentation Research Center, the world’s principle research facility for the study of forest fragmentation.

Accessible only through dirt road and surrounded by 10,000 hectares of rainforest, the facility invited students for a two night stay, allowing the students a chance to explore the area and see professional research in action.

“Nearly half of the research papers that we read for our project came from the people in that center,” said Mission 2006 student Schuyler Senft-Grupp ’06. “It was very inspiring to see the site and meet the people. It made me want to continue doing fieldwork.”

“I think one of the things that I’ll always carry with me from this trip is how the researchers were so into their work,” said undergraduate teaching fellow Catherine I. Shaw ’04, who acts a student advisor to the students of Mission 2006. “These people really loved what they were doing, and they were doing work that really mattered to them.”

The researchers took students on hikes throughout the area, giving the students a good sense of what kind of activities were involved each day in their research.

“We visited various areas of the forrest, checking certain trees and looking for tracks of particular animals to see which ones had passed through certain areas,” said Shaw.

“I loved the parts of the trip where we would simply explore our environment,” said Katrina M. Cornell ’06. “There were times when you’d encounter a great wooly spider or see jaguar markings on trees.”

“The trip really brought everything into perspective,” said Iris Tang ’06. “[The rainforest] is really something you have to experience firsthand.”

Breaking personal barriers

Students and participating faculty members were together during all parts of the trip forming more intimate relationships between the two parties.

“This trip gave both students and faculty experiences they wouldn’t normally get in a classroom environment,” Hodges said. “Faculty got to know their students as people and students got to know their professors as people. By the end of the trip, we had played soccer together, went swimming together, even knew who snored.”

“You’d never imagine going swimming with your professor through piranha-inhabited waters,” Shaw said.

“We had to undergo lots of boat rides,” Senft-Grupp said. “But it still gave all of us a lot of time to talk and get to know each other.”

Exploration beyond the Amazon

Because of their large number, students split into two groups; one went to the Impa research facility while the other stayed near the hotel to enjoy sites and engage in more tourist-like activities. The two groups switched roles at the end of the week.

The students around the hotel visited another facility named SIVAM, the System for the Vigilance of the Amazon, which monitors the conditions of the rainforest using radar and satelite images.

“What’s very interesting about SAVAN is that besides offering air traffic control and surveillance of the rainforest for such things as drug traffickers was the facility’s other purpose of surveying the environment, offering careful mapping and monitoring of the ecosystem’s processes,” said Hodges.

One night, students went on tours to look for Cayman, a relative of the crocodile, while one early morning they went in search of dolphins.

“Being down there really made you realize how big the world is,” Shaw said. “It made you feel so alive.”

On other occasions, students visited local villages and interacted with the locals.

“When we were playing with the children, we tried to show them some of the equipment we had brought with us,” Shaw said. “We showed them our GPS device and tried to tell them that this is where they were in the world.”

Students to set up exhibit

With the trip to the Amazon behind them, students of Mission 2006 now focus their efforts on building a museum exhibit set to appear in the Museum of Science later this semester presenting their work and experiences at the Amazon.

“One of the purposes of the trip was to collect information and footage for our exhibits,” said Mission 2006 student Christina C. Royce ’06.

Mission 2006 directors and faculty have begun preparations for the incoming freshman.

“We’re still thinking about next year’s project at the moment, though we plan to have it down by CPW,” Hodges said. “We’re definitely committed to further projects.”

Like previous years, a chance at fieldwork was not originally planned to be a part of the Mission experience, but the group hopes to make trips like this year’s trip to the Amazon “a fundamental part of the program.”

“One of the main goals I believe of Mission 2006 was to foster a community of learning among the students,” Shaw said. “It has definitely done that for these students as they have become such a close knit group after this trip and I think that’s something every student should have here.”