Today was a day of acclimatization and acculturation. While soaking in the tropical heat and humidity, trying to communicate with local Panamanians, and interacting with scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) I was extremely humbled. My body, which is used to the temperate rainforests of Central California, sweated from every pore and melted in the hot, wet air. My brain struggled to remember the verb conjugations and masculine vs. feminine articles of words vaguely remembered from past years of Spanish language instruction. If this wasn’t enough, I felt as if I was experiencing a crash-course in a whole new language of Paleontology, Geology, and scientific research.
We started the day by registering and checking in at STRI, signing liability waivers and receiving badges that identified us as official visitors but did not provide us access to any of the locked doors of this international research facility. The registration process began with an online course last week back in the US, and was completed today in Panama with the help of our tireless leaders Bruce MacFadden and Claudia Grant. It is a process that, as Bruce told us, has taken anywhere from 20 minutes to 4 hours in the past. He gave today’s experience a “B-” … which isn’t too bad. After registration, our group of about 25 classroom teachers, graduate students, and university staff took a short walk to the Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology for an orientation, a discussion of two scientific research articles on Gomphotheres, and a tour of fossil collections.
Listening to the introductions of my fellow GABI-RET Cohort 5 participants, and an overview of this NSF funded project, I settled in and began to feel comfortable. However, my comfort faded and shifted more toward anxiety as we discussed the research articles we had been assigned to read. I had just barely managed to wade through the density of these papers during the plane flights of the previous day and the short downtime of earlier that morning. Then, as one of the middle school science teachers eloquently summed up some of the findings and evidence, the limits of my understanding of the complex concepts presented became more and more apparent. The discourse went from “biochronology” to “geologic stratigraphy” to “chemostrategraphic methods” and my confidence went from bad to worse. But then I realized that that is why I am here, to immerse myself in the culture and language of scientific research and field work. As a former 5th grade teacher, and someone who is now charged with supporting K-12 science teachers, I have never experienced being a scientist or the true nature of scientific discovery. In the education field I am not alone in this reality, and this type of experience is something that is lacking in many classroom science teachers.
Immersion in scientific research and field work has immense potential to positively impact the content knowledge of teachers and the way science is taught in schools. It provides personal anecdotes of and an intense enthusiasm for scientific discovery that empowers teachers to transmit a real world context of science to their students. Engaging teachers in scientific discourse and field work experiences likewise engages students in the beauty and wonder of science. As my humility and anxiety began to bubble up to the surface, so too did my excitement and my love of learning. I felt like a student again, and with this feeling came a motivation to learn more about how to better understand and teach others about content areas like Paleontology and Geology. Typically, scientists aren’t the most religious lot, but today I was baptized and blessed by the science community in a very profound way.
Our day at STRI wrapped up in the Earl S. Tupper Conference Room (interestingly named for the inventor of Tupperware) where a large, international group of interns, professors, researchers, and our GABI-RET cohort gathered to hear a talk delivered by Bruce MacFadden on the Great American Biotic Interchange (GABI) and Dispersal of Equus into South America. It was during this talk and through the discourse that followed that I was encouraged by the fact that there are limits to the knowledge of even the greatest scientific minds, and many questions that remain unanswered in the diverse fields of science. Suddenly the impossibility of me being a scientist myself began to fade. Bruce shared a quote by G. G. Simpson, a famous American paleontologist of the 20th century, that strengthened my resolve and ignited my sense of purpose for this trip. Simpson once said, “Given enough time, the impossible becomes probable and the improbable becomes certain.” Tomorrow we are off to Lago Alajuela where I look forward to experiencing field research firsthand… and to being humbled once more.