We were greeted by an early wake-up call on the last day of our trip, with most of the participants arriving at the airport by 5:30 am. I arrived at the airport with the group, checking my bags and hoping the shell fossils I had collected in Gutan would make it safely through customs and back to my classroom in Cincinnati. One $7 cup of coffee later, it was time to say goodbye. We all went our separate ways, heading to our own gates for our return flights back to the United States. Though goodbyes after a grand adventure such as this are always difficult, we were heartened by the fact that we would soon be reunited in December for the wrap-up meeting at the University of Florida. For me personally, the walk up the jet way to my flight brought feelings of both excitement and sadness. I was excited to be going home to see my family and friends where I could share with them the stories, photos, and fossils from all my Panamanian adventures. I was also excited to by the opportunity I would have, upon returning, to take all of the information and experiences back to my classroom and my students. However, as exciting as both those prospects were, I was still sad to be leaving my new friends and ending the spectacular adventure and opportunities I had discovered in Panama.
As the plane pulled back from the gate and my journey started, I began to feel a little overwhelmed by all of the things I had learned. How was I going to incorporate all of things I had learned in Panama into my lessons in Cincinnati? Would the things I had learned in the field even translate to the sterile environment of the classroom? This trip to Panama, with all the amazing sites and amazing companions, had been such a great experience that I want to do it justice in my daily teaching. Sure, we had been given time during the trip to work on lessons, but there is simply no way to process the kind of information we were dealing with in the moment.
Only now, sitting in seat 23A, did the scope of what we had worked on dawn on me. I thought back to my own experiences in school and realized how much it would have meant to me to have a teacher participating in field work. On this trip, I had been given the opportunity to search for fossils in remote locations. I had been allowed to brave the natural elements and work side by side with experts in the field of paleontology. I had sat poolside and been witness to the collaborative process of science, discussing concepts with leaders in the field who treated me as a colleague. I had been present for the exhilarating highs of great finds and the slower days that help build to those highs. I had listened to some of the brightest minds in the world talk at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. When I returned to Cincinnati, I would be able to talk to my students not only as someone who had learned about these topics, but as someone who had experienced them as well.
In teaching, we sometimes overlook the value of experience. We lecture our students and provide them the information they need to succeed, but we rarely think about how they view us as we provide it. Do they see us as educated individuals with knowledge to convey? Or do some of them see as adults who happened upon the answer key that they are required to pay attention to for a full period at a time? Regardless of which side students fall into, experience can only enhance education. When I have the opportunity to show my students and tell my students how I, personally, have participated in the process of science, it can only serve to enhance my credibility when I later provide information to them. And, perhaps even more importantly, I have the opportunity now to show my students that “science” and “scientific research” isn’t just something done by far-off, faceless people somewhere else. Science is all around us, and even someone as painfully uncool as their own teacher can be a part of it.
Simply put, my trip to Panama reinvigorated my already strong love for science and the scientific process. Sometimes it takes getting your hands a little dirty to remind you just why you fell in love with something in the first place, and Panama had offered me that opportunity many times over. And so, as the wheels lifted and my journey back to America took flight, I concluded that the best part of my trip Panama was the knowledge that my teaching has been forever changed. When the wheels hit the ground in Atlanta, back on American soil, I returned as a teacher determined to tell the story of science and the scientists I had worked with to my students. I had been given the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in the collaborative process of science and experience the joy of discovery, and I knew it was now my responsibility to pass that experience on to the next generation walking into my classroom.
I feel honored to have shared this trip with so many wonderful scientists, graduate students and fellow teachers. I know that this trip has made me a better teacher and I will remember the experiences I had for the rest of my life.