Tropical Rainforest Education. ERIC Digest.
by Rillero, Peter
Rainforests. Beautiful green habitats that have evolved over millions
of years and contain our richest collections of life. From ant eaters to
quetzals, begonias to rosewood trees, cicadas to slugs, tropical rainforests
teem with intricate webs of life. These biodiversity warehouses constitute
7% of earth's land, yet they contain from 50 to 90% of its living species.
Like the rainforests themselves, tropical rainforest education may seem
like an unorganized jumble of recommendations, activities, and disconnected
efforts. To help point the way through the terrain, this Digest offers
four guideposts: (a) structure, (b) location and climate, (c) importance,
and (d) Conservation of resources.
STRUCTURE PLAYERS OF LIFE. One of the most important features
of a rainforest is its vertical stratification. Different microclimates
and microhabitats exist in the layers. This layering is a major factor
in the rich biodiversity of rainforests.
Pranis and Cohen (1995) describe how children can depict the layers
of the rainforest. For the canopy, stand on chairs; sub-canopy, stand on
the floor; understory, kneel; and ground, lie down on the floor.
Crane (1987) presents a mural guide of the layers made of two 7.5 foot
strips of butcher paper on the wall. Each of the five layers (emergent,
canopy, middle, shrub, and herb) is 18 inches tall. Student groups illustrate
different layers and explain their layer to the class. A similar activity
that involves constructing a three-dimensional paper rainforest mural has
been suggested by McKee (1991) .
Rosenbusch (1994) suggests that after students learn about the layers
they hypothesize about differences in microclimate between the layers.
ADAPTATIONS OF LIFE. Rainforest organisms are adapted for survival
in the particular microclimates of rainforests. Comparing these organisms
with more familiar organisms is one way to learn their structures and functions.
Science supply companies now offer seeds and kits students can use to observe
the growth of rainforest plants.
Pranis and Cohen (1995) suggest creating rainforest conditions with
a grow light and timer for 12 hours of light, heater for warm temperatures,
and plastic enclosure to retain moisture. Humidity is added with a spray
bottle. Beyond observing plant growth, students can compare the growing
conditions with local and cultivated plants, as well as leaf transpiration
The National Wildlife Foundation (NWF, 1989) described an activity where
students observe and draw leaves from local forests. Illustrations of rainforest
leaves are provided for students to compare the leaves. Typically temperate
leaves have more variety in shape. Tropical rainforest leaves are elongated
with "drip tips."
Students become jaguars in an activity by Morris and Morris (1994).
Using a paper bag they cut out eye holes, paste on paper ears and a nose,
paint it yellow with black spots, and add pipe cleaner whiskers. A tail
is created by filling a nylon stocking with paper and gluing on black felt
dots. Students can pretend they are jaguars and explain the functions of
LOCATION AND CLIMATE
WHERE IN THE WORLD. Tropical rainforests are located in the warm
regions south of the Tropic of Cancer and north of the Tropic of Capricorn.
Tropical rainforests have the greatest biodiversity, but there are non-tropical
or temperate rainforests as well (such as those on the northwest coast
of the USA).
Several rainforest maps and related activities are available (Morris
& Morris, 1994; NWF, 1989; & Crane, 1987). McKee (1991) had primary
grade students look at a map of the world and then place a strip of green
cellophane along the equator, visualizing the tropical rainforest belt.
TROPICAL RAINFOREST CLIMATE. Tropical rainforests are warm areas
that receive a great deal of rainfall. Average temperatures range from
70-90 degrres F. Rainfall ranges from 60-200 inches per year. Relative
humidity is typically 70% in the daytime, 95% at night. Thornton et al.
(1995) had first grade students graph local rainfall and compare it to
GOING, GOING, GONE? Despite the beauty and importance of rainforests,
they are being rapidly destroyed or altered. Analogies can help people
understand the rates of loss. Between 1981 and 1990, tropical forest loss
was 40 million acres a year. This is the size of the state of Washington
(Fortner, 1992). According to Schneider (1996),we are currently losing
the area the size of Florida each year. Within 75 years, all the rainforests
could be gone.
Analysis of data is another way for students to learn about rainforest
loss and integrate mathematics into their science learning. Scientific
papers can be a good source of data for analysis.
HABITAT FOR BIODIVERSITY. The number of species in tropical rainforests
is astonishing. One pond in the Amazon can contain more species of fish
than all the rivers in Europe. One 25 acre plot of land in Borneo has almost
700 types of trees. This is more species than in all the six billion acres
of North America. One rainforest park in Costa Rica has more species of
butterflies than all of North America.
A good introduction to the idea of habitat and diversity is suggested
by Crane (1987). Bring children to a natural area and have them count the
number of different living organisms. Next take the children to a parking
lot or a dirt area and rope off the same size area. Explain that this area
used to look like the other area.
PEOPLE OF THE RAINFOREST. Indigenous people to the rainforests
are dependent on the rainforest. The Mbuti or Pygmies in Central Africa,
Kuna of Panama, and Arowaks of Suriname are examples of indigenous people
living sustainably in tropical rainforests. NWF (1989) presents an activity
where students read about the lives of a Mbuti family as they look at pictures.
McKee (1991) had students create a Mbuti hut. Morris and Morris (1994)
present information on building replica huts of the Dyack people of Borneo.
People who live near rainforests, as well as those who live within them,
benefit from forest preservation. Rainforests act like sponges for rainfall.
They absorb excess rain and slowly release it. When trees are cut, the
area becomes more vulnerable to floods and droughts. Rainforests also protect
soil from eroding, and they influence the climate of an area.
FOODS FOR THE WORLD. Rainforests are the origin of many foods
in our diet. Coffee, chocolate, many fruits (bananas, avocado, grapefruit,
guava, heart of palm, mango, passion fruit, papaya, and more), many nuts
(Brazil, cashew, and macadamia), many spices (allspice, cloves, vanilla,
black pepper) are from rainforests. Wild areas offer plants that can be
used as hybrids to prevent disease or loss of valuable food plants (Grove,
NWF (1989) provides students with a checklist of products that come
from or originated in rainforests. In a rainforest unit, McKee (1991) created
a tasting center for first and second grade children to sample foods from
MEDICINES FOR THE WORLD. Rainforests supply the world drugstore.
Twenty-five percent of all drugs were derived from rainforest organisms.
Seventy percent of plants with known anti-cancer properties are from rainforests
(Taylor, 1996). Cashew oil and bamboo extracts have been shown to inhibit
bacterial growth (Grove, 1992). Curare, a muscle relaxant used in surgery,
ipecac for dysentery, and quinine for malaria are all drugs from rainforests.
Not only do many drugs come from rainforests, but rainforests also provide
a future resource. With less than 1% of rainforest species identified,
new disease fighting compounds may be found.
PRODUCTS FOR THE WORLD. Along with food and drugs, rainforests
provide other useful resources. From rainforests come chewing gum, oils
(palm, camphor, sandalwood), rubber, houseplants (African violet, "Begonia,"
bromeliads, "Dieffenbachia," orchids, "Philodendron," rubber plant, and
snake plant) exotic hardwoods (mahogany, balsa, rosewood), rattan and bamboo,
and fibers (burlap, kapok, and ramie).
CLIMATE FOR THE WORLD. World climate is chaotic, and perturbations
in one area can have unpredicted consequences elsewhere. Tropical rainforests
provide cooling effects of shade and transpiration. The thick expanses
of trees act as windbreaks. The removal of the rainforests may not only
alter local climate, but it might change aspects of world climate as well.
PLACES OF NATURAL BEAUTY AND SOLITUDE. In a time of increasing
human population, urbanization, suburbanization, and pollution, one refuge
we have is unspoiled nature. Actual visits or multimedia journeys to tropical
rainforests allow us to witness nature in splendor. Artists and inventive
persons use these areas to stimulate creativity. For many others a walk
through a tropical rainforest awakens their spiritual selves.
CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES
When we educate citizens who live in a democracy, we must educate them
to be active citizens. For citizens wishing to act on behalf of tropical
rainforests, the best place to begin is education. Students should learn
all they can and seek to share what they know. Through posters, T-shirts,
letters, and books, students can share what they have learned.
ORGANIZATIONS AND PROGRAMS. Understanding and assisting conservation
programs and organizations can be an effective way to become involved.
Most conservation organizations will send free materials to classrooms.
A good place to find contact information is through the World Wide Web;
the Rainforest Action Network maintains a website with lots of useful rainforest
related information [www.wideopen.igc.apc.org/ran/index.html]. Students
could work in teams and develop plans to protect rainforests (Pranis &
Cohen, 1995). Rosenbusch (1994) describes a project where elementary school
students collected soda cans to buy one-half acre of rainforest land for
HAMBURGER CONNECTION. Many conservation organizations suggest
a boycott of rainforest beef. Hamburger meat used in the USA frequently
comes from cleared rainforest areas in Central America. The low quality
rainforest beef is ground and sold to US fast food restaurants. Uhl and
Parker (1986) present a calculation of the cost of one hamburger from the
rainforest. For each hamburger, 55 square feet of rainforest- home to millions
of individual rainforest organisms and thousands of species-is lost.
REDUCTION IN USE OF TREE RESOURCES. Rainforests can be protected
by reducing use of tree resources through recycling and conservation. The
Rainforests Action Network promotes reducing use of wood products by 75%
in ten years. They also urge people not to buy tropical hardwoods such
as mahogany and rosewood.
Thornton et al. (1995) used the question, "How many Sunday papers can
be produced by a canopy tree?" to guide mathematical problem solving. With
the hint that a small canopy tree produces a 90-inch stack of papers, the
first grade children were able to calculate that if they recycled 72 Sunday
papers they could save one small rainforest canopy tree.
PROMOTE SUSTAINABLE USE. Economics is a driving force in rainforest
destruction and conservation. Purchasing products harvested in a sustainable
fashion from rainforests helps local people support their families and
encourages them to conserve the rainforests. For example, the Brazil nut
tree is difficult to cultivate; so places where it grows wild are sometimes
protected. When sustainable rainforest materials are bought, the economic
value of these materials far exceeds the short term values of clear cutting
rainforests for timber or cattle ranching.
Through action, rainforests can be saved. If students become involved
in promoting responsible use of rainforests, we increase the chances of
protecting one of the most treasured resources of our world. In the process
we develop an even greater resource for our planet-young people who know
their rights, responsibilities, and powers as world citizens.
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