Teens build hands-on rainforest exhibit

Kristin Gustafson

A flood of 7,000 middle-school science students began their hands-on rainforest education this week at the Bell Museum of Natural History.
During the next two weeks, an estimated 1,000 University students, staff, faculty and community members will join the young students in the interactive and multi-sensory exhibit, “Rainforest: A Wet and Wild Adventure.” The exhibit began on Sunday.
Built entirely by middle-school students from nine Twin Cities’ schools and a Girl Scout troop, the exhibit teaches participants about the world’s rainforests through science experiments, storytelling, and colorful representations of the animals, flowers, insects, plants and trees of the rainforest.
Highlights include an American Indian longhouse representing the Hoh tribe, a wood and rope walkway that simulates treetop bridges used by Amazon rainforest explorers, interactive games about water quality preservation and a hands-on fossil experiment.
Miles Niska, an 8-year-old from Capitol Hill elementary school in St. Paul, said he liked learning “about all the different kinds of animals in the rainforest.”
His 9-year-old classmate, Stephanie Rhee, said she learned “that people eat bugs.”
“Resources like the rainforest are dwindling, and important,” said Mark Stowe, a junior geology student at the University and volunteer for the Heart of the Earth Survival School.
Stowe helped seventh- and eighth-graders from the school create beadwork, masks, wigwams and medicine bags to demonstrate the similarities and differences among local tribes and those from a temperate rainforest.
“They get to learn about their culture at the same time as learning about science,” Stowe said.
As students weave their way through the exhibit, they learn about the Amazon tropical rainforest in Peru, the temperate rainforest in the northwest United States and the fossilized evidence of the tropical rainforest that existed 65 million years ago in Colorado.
Each exhibit project is a part of this year’s JASON project, a multi-disciplinary school curriculum coordinated in Minnesota by the Bell Museum. Titanic explorer Dr. Robert Ballard started the project.
The 40-minute exhibit and tour is complemented with a visit to the auditorium where students join Ballard and his team of student scientists, or argonauts, in Peru via live satellite broadcasts. From the University, the images are then broadcast to area schools.
“This is the ultimate experience because it is very interactive,” said Chris Tower, director of the Bell museum’s JASON project and former JASON teacher. He said that the true application is to immerse students in field activities and research before coming to the exhibit, as “it re-instills the learning.”
Students watch scientists perform live experiments with bugs, leaves and water on the main screen. Two side screens display complementary visuals.
“How many rainforests have you been to in the world?” Twelve-year-old Kelly Hagen, of Hutchinson Middle School, asked one of the scientists via satellite. As her face and question appeared on the large screen, Hagen’s peers cheered.
Tower said the JASON project shows middle school students that science “isn’t just people in lab coats.”
Paul Cartwright was Bell Museum’s first JASON argonaut when he was 15 years old and explored the ecosystems of the coral reef. Now a freshman technology major, Cartwright said, “I learned about the U and their Institute of Technology and that influenced me to go there.”
Protecting rainforests from extinction is an underlying theme of the exhibit.
Tropical rainforests cover only 2 percent of the earth’s surface, but they are its most diverse ecosystem. A four square-mile patch of rainforest contains as many as 1,500 species of flowering plants, 70 species of trees, 125 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, 100 species of reptiles, 60 species of amphibians, and 150 species of butterflies. About one-fourth of all the medicines used come from rainforest plants.
Rainforests are being destroyed at an estimated rate of about one football field-sized area per second.
“If the rainforests of the world suddenly vanished, the climate on the earth would change dramatically and life as we know it would cease to exist,” said Ballard in a video describing the project. Ballard said understanding the rainforest needs to happen before it can be preserved.
The exhibit is free to students, staff and faculty, and the satellite broadcasts will run through March 12. The exhibit will remain open until June 27.