An Argonaut’s Journey to the Rainforest

Today I fly to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. I was so lucky to be selected to join the JASON XV Project expedition team, traveling with the scientists and production team to Barro Colorado Island and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in the middle of the Panama Canal Zone… . I will update this [Web] page with my daily journals so my fourth-grade students and students anywhere in the world can follow along “virtually.”

( Field journal: Tuesday, January 20, 2004)
Today I fly to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. I was so lucky to be selected to join the JASON XV Project expedition team, traveling with the scientists and production team to Barro Colorado Island and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in the middle of the Panama Canal Zone… . I will update this [Web] page with my daily journals so my fourth-grade students and students anywhere in the world can follow along “virtually.”

Heather Renz believes in a simple motto: Never be afraid to try something new. That explains, at least in part, how the fourth-grade teacher at Vern Patrick Elementary School in Redmond came to spend two weeks last January educating students worldwide from a remote research outpost deep in the rainforests of Panama as part of the JASON Project.

Hundreds of teachers from all over the world apply each year for the rare opportunity to participate in a JASON Project expedition. Robert Ballard, PhD, the deep-sea explorer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, started the program in 1989 “to inspire in students a lifelong passion to pursue learning … through exploration and discovery.” In the spirit of the mythological adventurers Jason and the Argonauts, the JASON Project launches a new educational expedition each year, sending a team of student and teacher “Argonauts” on a voyage of discovery with world-renowned scientists. Their adventures are broadcast via satellite and Internet technology to participating classrooms in grades 4 to 9 around the world. 

Renz, a teacher since 1980, earned her undergraduate degree at Oregon State University. After her first 10 years of teaching, she decided it was “time to learn some more,” so she enrolled in the MAT program at Lewis & Clark College. “I chose Lewis & Clark because I knew that it would make me a better, stronger teacher,” says Renz, “and it absolutely did. That’s where I learned the importance of encouraging students to question and inquire and wonder about the world around them.”

For the past four years, Renz has used the JASON Project curriculum to inspire her students to explore their sense of wonder about other parts of the world. Last year, as she and her class watched a live broadcast of the JASON XIV Project on the large screen at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), she wondered to herself, “How do you get to do that? I would love to do that! 

At home that night, Renz went to the JASON Project Web site and started filling out application forms. Numerous essays, meetings, and interviews later, she got the good news: She had been chosen as one of only eight teachers in the world for the JASON XV Project, and the first from Oregon to participate in any JASON expedition. The following January, Renz would be the one on the big screen, beaming her experiences in the rainforests of Panama to classrooms all over the world.

( Field journal: Wednesday, January 21 )
Tonight we headed off to film kinkajous. Roland Kays showed us the balsa trees [where] the nocturnal kinkajous were often spotted drinking the nectar of the flowers high overhead.

Roland Kays, PhD, has been widely published for his research on the kinkajou, a small, honey-colored mammal that has a monkeylike tail and is related to the raccoon. Until Renz’s first day in the rainforest, her exposure to exotic animals like kinkajous, and to internationally known scientists like Kays, had been limited to the pages of textbooks and magazines. “Suddenly there I was, working and learning alongside this scientist whom I had read about inNational Geographic,” says Renz. “It was incredible!”

Renz and Kays used radio telemetry to track kinkajous and observe their mutually beneficial relationship with the balsa trees in the rainforest. In the process of drinking and feeding on the nectar of the balsa flower, kinkajous carry pollen from flower to flower, performing the function of pollination for the trees. “Roland taught us that we need to develop a better understanding of the incredibly intricate and interrelated web of life,” says Renz. “Building that understanding is a necessary step to conserving biodiversity.”

On that first day, in addition to kinkajous, Renz met up with an ocelot, half a dozen red spider monkeys, a possum, a coati, several tarantulas, and a capybara—the world’s largest rodent, weighing in at about 100 pounds. “It was mind-boggling,” says Renz. “I couldn’t believe that all these creatures were all around me, all the time.” 

( Field journal: Friday, January 23 )
What a great treat we had today! Our team drove to Gatun Locks near the Atlantic Ocean. Did you know that to get one ship through the canal it takes 26 million gallons of fresh water? It’s lucky that in the rainforest it rains enough so the rivers can keep supplying all that water to operate the canal. 

Through her daily online field journal entries, Renz shared everything she learned and experienced with her students back home. “Since most of my students have never traveled, they tend to have a narrow view of the world,” says Renz. “By being able to go out and have that experience and share it with them through my photos and journals, I hope I helped give them a broader perspective.”

In her visit to the Panama Canal’s Gatun Locks, Renz was able to share an experience that few people ever get to have. “While we were filming a segment for the live broadcast, we got to go into the control house, and the student Argonauts actually opened the gates to let a ship in, and then close the gates and watch the chambers fill with water,” says Renz. “Normally you would never get to do that.” 

Back on Barro Colorado Island, every day brought new adventures into a rainforest that few people ever see. Access by the public is strictly limited, and visitors must stay on designated trails. But Renz’s team got to go all over the island with the world’s leading researchers. “What an honor it was to be able to do that,” says Renz. 

( Field journal: Tuesday, January 27 )
Today was Day Two [of] the live broadcast. My assignment for today was … with Dr. Meg Lowman and Dr. Compton Tucker of NASA… . Between filming episodes in the field, a troop of red spider monkeys decided to entertain us by swinging through the trees high overhead. I will certainly miss these entertaining shows put on by our rainforest friends when I return home to the snowy landscapes of Central Oregon.

A highlight of the trip, for Renz, was the opportunity to work with Meg Lowman, PhD, one of the premier rainforest conservation researchers in the world, and Compton Tucker, PhD, a NASA scientist who uses satellite data to map the rates of deforestation and fragmentation of tropical forests. Renz worked with the pair to study the effects that plant-eating insects have on the rainforest canopy. The team members took turns going high into the canopy in a “bosun’s chair”—a sling harness hooked with ropes over a tree branch. Using a long “sweep net” and a “beating tray,” they collected a sampling of insects and brought them to the ground to survey them. “Meg taught us that there could be up to 100 million species of insects that live in the rainforest,” says Renz. “Scientists have identified only 1.5 million so far, so we have a long way to go.”

The insects that fascinated Renz the most were the leaf-cutter ants that she saw windsurfing along the forest floor with their leafy sails. “Those are the most awesome creatures!” says Renz. “From sunup to sundown, they work diligently to harvest and carry leaves to their underground fungus farms, where they process the leaves into food for the colony. If one ant dropped its leaf, a group of worker ants would rush over and tip it up again so the ant could continue on its way. They’re such a cooperative society. We humans could learn a lot from them.” 

( Field journal: Thursday, January 29 )
Today my fourth graders and my family were in the audience watching the live broadcast from OMSI, so I was excited for the opportunity to communicate silently with them via the satellite waves… . Later in the day, I learned a lesson the hard way—always to have my camera around my neck. As I climbed the Donato Trail headed to the camera location, I came upon not one, not two, but three sloths hanging calmly from a limb. My digital camera was tucked safely into my JASON backpack half a mile away, so my mind became my camera as I memorized the looks on their gentle faces, their long three toes clinging to the branch.

On the day that OMSI showed the live satellite broadcast of Renz’s Panama team, every fourth- and fifth-grade class from her school came to watch. For weeks after she came home, says Renz, students would come up to her in the halls and say, “I saw you up in the trees!”

Renz recorded and photographed as much as she could, and used her mind as her camera for everything else. “I tried to memorize every moment, every sight, and every sound,” says Renz, “because I knew I would never have that experience again. It’s pretty extraordinary to get off the beaten path like we did and to get out and learn and be with the kind of people we were with.”

( Field journal: Sunday, February 1)
Our adventure in the rainforest officially ended today. One by one, I said goodbye to each Argonaut. I set my watch back to adjust to the Pacific time zone and headed home. I reflect back to the time I thought about applying to be a JASON XV Teacher Argonaut and remember saying to myself, “Someone has to be chosen and it might as well be me.” The lesson I have learned is to pursue your goals and dreams and never give up. This adventure was officially over, at least for now, but the memories from this experience of a lifetime and the new friends I made while I was in Panama will remain with me forever.

Back in her classroom in Redmond, Renz often reflects on the lessons she learned in the rainforest, both from the greatest scientists and from the tiniest ants. In teaching her students about cooperation and teamwork, about the wonders of the natural world, about the importance of science, and about the value of curiosity and inquiry, she now has plenty of real-life examples to offer.

These days, Renz encourages all of her students to keep their eyes open and to go for their dreams. “Go for something that’s maybe a little out of your comfort zone and it’ll make you a better person,” she tells them. “I’m definitely a different person than I was a year ago. I’ve had experiences that a lot of people will never get to have, and it’s these kinds of life experiences that make us better, more well-rounded human beings. I lived in the rainforest for two weeks. How many people get to do that?”

Ellisa Valo writes for Clarity Communications from her home office on the Clackamas River. She is a member of the Rainforest Alliance and a big fan of leaf-cutter ants.