Panama Day 12: Reflections on Deep Learning in Panama

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Bruce MacFadden and John Turner have just verified that this was the exact point where the gomphothere tooth had been found 50 years ago. Photo by Karen Schmidt.

While flying home from Panama, I thought about how much I learned this summer and had been able to build upon my beginner’s grasp of paleontology. Last year I felt like I had learned a lot as a participant in GABI RET, but this year’s field experiences added a richness and depth to my understanding that surprised me. Suddenly, I realized the importance of finding fossils in situ rather than floating. How else would you know for sure where they came from and how old they were? I saw first hand the difference between an internal mold and an external mold of seashells in sediments. And even though I did not feel particularly gifted at seeing fossil remains last year, this year I saw a perfectly gorgeous Megalodon tooth lying on the ground where others had missed it! Furthermore, a much bigger and more detailed map was forming in my mind to explain how the Panama land bridge formed and was related to the sites we worked in at San Judas, Lago Alajuela and Lago Bayano. Synthesizing big ideas about geologic time and geographic space was a challenge, but an engaging one. It was a pleasure to be able to focus on this kind of deep learning.

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Incredible animation of the closure of the Panama Isthmus available at the BioMuseo. Photo by Karen Schmidt.

I really wish that students in our classrooms could also experience deep learning. I know now how valuable it is, and how foolish it is that we usually try to rush learning in the classroom. I’ve seen that it takes time and experience to get good at telling the difference between fossil bones and certain rocks. It takes time and experience to figure out where’s a good place to look for fossils. And it takes time and experience to visualize a whole big landscape such as Panama and its geologic history. Unfortunately, we teachers do not usually have this luxury of time nor the access to a field experience with our students. At the school where I teach, we don’t have buses for field trips or even a nice tree to sit under while making observations of nature. I sometime worry that by talking about my trips to Panama, I am pointing out yet another thing that my students do not have access to. So how best to use this precious experience?

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Useful exhibit display to understand the different field localities and the amazing scientific work being done in Panama. Photo by Karen Schmidt.

First of all, I hope that beginning the school year refreshed, relaxed, and enthusiastic will help me convey a view of science as an invigorating adventure, as opposed to something dry and boring. And I hope to introduce the students to the fabulous researchers who shared this experience in Panama with me–either by Skype interview or as guest visitors. I loved spending time with our science experts, who conversed and debated about cone snail evolution, paleoclimate, biodiversity, botany, bats, rocks, birds, etc. Without them answering my questions and offering their own unique perspectives, my learning would not have been nearly as deep. Hearing stories from John Turner–the boy scout who found the tooth of a gomphothere at Lago Alajuela more than 50 years ago–also added a fascinating dimension to our field studies. Having John around to tell us interesting details about the Canal Zone’s past helped illustrate the power of story lines as we–teachers and students–learn new information. It’s something I’m trying to incorporate more in my science teaching, as I plan my 8th grade course, and story lines are recommended for implementing the NGSS.

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Mayra Cordero (left) and Karen Schmidt (right) at Lago Alajuela. Photo by Claudia Grant.

As I gear up for the hectic first days of teaching in public school, I will fondly think back on that last peaceful day at Lago Alajuela, when a team of us spent a couple hours engaged in quiet, collaborative, focused digging in an ancient bed of giant oysters. For a moment, it was like time stood still and yet my mind was expanding. Thank you, GABI RET, for giving me this incredible deep learning experience!

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