The Great American Biotic Interchange | Research Experiences for Teachers
… The Panama Connection

NSF logoFunded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), GABI RET is an initiative by the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida that seeks to provide professional development for science teachers. This professional development has several goals:


  • Provide scientific content to be translated into the classroom
  • Provide authentic field experiences along with scientists
  • Provide research and co-publication opportunities
  • Build a space for educators and scientists to collaborate


 The History

GABI RET is an outcome of the NSF funded PCP PIRE (Panama Canal Project | Partnerships for International Research and Education). In 2012 and 2013, PCP PIRE was awarded two supplements for the:

PCP PIRE & California STEM Teachers Partnership (CSTP) also known as PCPPIRETeach. On year 1 we had the opportunity to meet 5 educators from Santa Santa Cruz, CA who came with us to Panama. Superintendent Gary Bloom and his wife were also part of the group. Teachers and administrators not only liked what they experienced, but they also thought that exposing teachers to these type of international experiences was extremely valuable for classroom instruction. On year 2, we had the privilege to meet 6 educators (5 from CA and 1 from FL), and the outcomes speak for themselves. During the fall of 2013, in collaboration with teachers, scientists and K12 administrators, we submitted the GABI RET proposal to NSF. The proposal was funded in February, 2014.

GABI RET & PCPPIRETeach: Is there a difference?

The only difference is the type of research we do. PCPPIRETeach focused on the fossils located in the Panama Canal Zone, while GABI RET is focusing on animals and localities that relate to the Great American Biotic Interchange. Teachers from PCPPIRETeach cohorts 1 and 2 belong to GABI RET now, and as such, we are slowly building a strong community of science educators. Because now we have a grant that focuses specifically on research experiences for teachers (RET), we can recruit up to 10 teachers per year. Yes! we are growing.

Project Abstract

Biomuseo Worlds Collide
Worlds Collide Exhibit – BioMuseo
Photo by Robert Hoffman

The Great American Biotic Interchange (GABI) was catalyzed by the formation of the Isthmus of Panama during the Neogene. The GABI had a profound effect on the evolution and geography of terrestrial organisms throughout the Americas and marine organisms globally. For example, more than 100 genera of terrestrial mammals dispersed between the Americas, and numerous marine organisms had their interoceanic distributions cut in half by the formation of the Isthmus. The GABI is widely considered to have been a grand natural experiment documented by the fossil record. In addition to biotic effects, the formation of the Isthmus also affected oceanic circulation, global climates, and possibly triggered the Ice Ages during the Pleistocene. Over the past several years, new discoveries have dramatically impacted our scientific understanding of GABI. Until recently, the paradigm depicts final closure of the Isthmus during the Pliocene about 4 million years ago, and the dispersal of land mammals north and south commencing thereafter. However, this traditional scenario is being challenged by new fossil discoveries. Thus, rather than being considered a single event that occurred about 4 million years ago, the GABI likely represents a series of dispersals over the past 10 million years, some of which occurred before full closure of the Isthmus. New fossil discoveries in Panama resulting from the GABI RET (Research Experiences for Teachers) are thus contributing to the understanding of the complexity and timing of the GABI during the Neogene.

This three-year project primarily focuses on professional research experiences for middle and high school STEM teachers, in diverse fields including biology, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, and oceanography. Each year 10 teachers and three to five professional paleontologists participate in a four-phase process of professional development, including: a (1) pre-trip orientation (May); (2) 12 days in Panama in July collecting fossils from previously reported, as well as newly discovered, sites; (3) a post-trip on-line (cyberenabled) Community of Practice; and (4) a final wrap-up at the end of each cohort (December). In addition, some of the teachers also elect to partner with scientists in their research laboratories, principally located in California, Florida, and New Mexico. Our in-country partners are from the Universidad Autonoma de Chiriqui (UNACHI), including faculty and students, as well as STEM teachers from schools in Panama.

Deliverables of the GABI experience include the development of lesson plans related to fossils, paleontology, evolution, geology, past climate change, and related content aligned with current STEM standards (e.g., NGSS). The teachers engage in the process of scientific discovery and participate in the development of research, and then follow-up sharing their experiences by the on-line GABI RET Community of Practice. Dissemination of the GABI RET results occurs via papers presented at professional meetings and published in peer-reviewed journals, as well as those presented in popular media. Broader impacts of the GABI project include mutual collaboration for teachers and scientists international and multicultural research experiences, broadening representation of participants and stakeholders, and sharing resources via social media and the web.