BRIDGEWATER, NJ - For the second year in a row, Hillside Intermediate School teacher Dr. Katrina Macht taught her sixth grade science students about rainforests, the animals that inhabit them and the Panama Canal – with an in-person look at the island itself.

Macht spent a week on Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake, part of the Panama Canal waterway, and spent two days doing virtual classes with students at Hillside. Sixth graders had the chance to speak to Macht as she stayed and worked at a field station operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The virtual classes were made possible by a grant from the NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education and PRISM, the science education center at Montclair State University.

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And, Macht said, the district generously provides her with the release time to travel to Panama and facilitate the conferences.

“It was cool to see another country and island, and what scientists are doing,” said sixth grader Pranav Karra, who was in one of the virtual classes. “It was inspiring to go to another country.”

Rainforest Connection Live! are video conference sessions that are presented in schools throughout New Jersey, and which address a major theme in ecology, including predator-prey relationships, decomposition and monkey adaptations.

Macht said that the chats take place from the balcony of the visitor’s center on the island, surrounded by the forest’s treetops, where they are eye-to-eye with wildlife that includes toucans, parrots and monkeys.

“Exhilarating does not begin to do justice to how I feel about being able to share the magic of this remarkable ecosystem with Hillside’s students, and the 40-minute video chats are never enough time to expose them to this environment.”

Macht’s sessions with Hillside focused on interdependent relationships in tropical forest food webs and how scientists study them.

Hillside principal Will Ferry said he believes this kind of class brings a whole other element for the students.

“They can see their teacher in Panama, and their questions were phenomenal,” he said. “What a great opportunity it is for them to think about a future in science.”

Macht spoke to the students about the different kinds of monkeys she was seeing on the island, namely Spider, Capuchin and Howler. She showed videos of the monkeys and images of the different species spending time in the canopy of trees over Panama.

Macht also welcomed a guest scientist, who spent time in the rainforests in Cameroon, Africa. A student at James Madison University, Drew Berdo spoke to the students about the different animal species he saw there, and what he had seen in Panama too, including toucans and other kinds of birds.

Students had the chance to ask questions, such as why scientists chose to study in Panama.

“There are Smithsonian field stations all over Panama,” Macht said. “This is one such premiere field site because it has such a large presence of wildlife.”

“Scientists petitioned around the 1940s to make it a research site,” she added.

Students also asked about the climate in Panama, human impact on the wildlife and the number of ships traveling along the canal in any given year.

Macht explained about the science institute itself. The Gatun Lake, she said, is the biggest part of the canal and is manmade. She said people do not live on the Barro Colorado Island, it is only scientists.

“They stay for no more than one year at a time,” she said. “It’s only a research facility, and the main attraction is the forest itself.”

Macht spent a week on the island, with the two days teaching students, and, although this is only the second year of the video classes, she has been traveling there for years.

“I have noticed a lot of changes over the years,” she told her students, citing growing wildlife and the changing temperaments of the animals.

“We used to see the Capuchin monkeys all the time, and now they are a little more shy and afraid of being darted,” she added. “We have seen a lot of change.”

Macht said she returns to the island every year both to be a student and to learn from the scientists doing research there in the hopes of becoming a better science educator herself, and to excite her students about the importance of biodiversity in the planet.

“Forest ecosystems continue to disappear at alarming rates,” she said. “Every visit here is filled with opportunities to meet new field scientists and learn about their research, unexpected surprises on the trails and a greater appreciation for one of the richest ecosystems on Earth.”

“If I am able to impart a fraction of this awe and appreciation to our students, I have succeeded,” she added.

Sixth grader Sofia Guadagno said she enjoyed watching the videos of the monkeys Macht showed during her presentation.

“I thought it was really exciting because I may never get that experience again,” she said. “I learned a lot.”

Sixth grader Logan Krizan agreed.

“The most interesting thing was hearing from Dr. Macht’s colleague,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”