BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Hillside Intermediate School sixth grade science teacher Katrina Macht told the students about several different kinds of monkeys and the work of a mammalogist who studies them in Panama – but instead of just looking at pictures, she was showing them first-hand accounts.

For the fourth year in a row, sixth grade students at Hillside had the chance to video conference with Macht during her weeklong visit to Barro Colorado Island, in Gatun Lake, part of the Panama Canal waterway.

Every year for almost 20 years, Macht visits the island, which is a field station operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. And for the past few years, thanks to a grant from the NEA Student Success Grant, STEAMING toward Justice, students have had the chance to video conference with her while she is there, seeing the surrounding landscape and hearing from research scientists working on the island.

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These conferences, called Rainforest Connection Live!, run through the month of February, and are presented throughout schools in New Jersey. Each session addresses a major theme in ecology, with Hillside students hearing about interdependent relationships in tropical forest food webs, and Macht hosting the first week of broadcasts with her students.

"I have been traveling to Barro Colorado Island since 2001, and throughout those 19 years, every experience is as fresh and new as the one before," she said after returning home. "I am in as much awe of the forest today as I was when I first set foot on BCI. Whether it's the animals I see, or the people I meet, or simply the calm of the forest trails, each visit is unique and exceptional in its own way."

"And that is what I most want to convey to my students, sitting in a classroom more than 2,500 miles away," she added, "the beauty of the forest, as well as its rich ecological diversity, and of course the need to protect forests and their ecological diversity across our planet, especially at this critical time in our history."

Macht told the students during the video conference that the island is mostly rainforest, with one section being field stations, where scientists live and work year-round. She said it is one of the most studied forests on the planet, and was created when the Panama Canal was built in 1913.

“This is an amazing piece of ecological forest information,” she said. “It has been protected for 100 years, and it is a protected part of the United States government, so there is high security.”

“There is so much to learn here about the wider ecosystems,” she added.

Macht spoke to the students about the season on the island, explaining that it was a very dry season, and the fact that the island has not been getting much rain over the past two years. She said she was told the last two rainy seasons were not very wet there, and the dry seasons have been worse than usual.

“The weather patterns have changed,” she told the students. “This has been a dryer dry season than last year, and if there are a couple more, we will have a drought. It is bad for the trees.”

“Then the trees don’t produce fruit, and the herbivores don’t have fruit to eat,” she added. “Then the carnivores have less food.”
Macht spoke about the different kinds of monkeys living on the island, including Capuchin, Howler and Spider, and explained the differences between them.

“Spider monkeys have brains that almost rival chimpanzees,” she said. “They are heavier than Howlers because they are longer, and they move quicker. Capuchins are more aggressive, and they don’t like humans.”

In addition, in line with understanding the ecology, Macht spoke about the animals and their feeding patterns, focusing on a study done of a deer that had been killed by a predator, and its decomposition rate as it was lying in the trees.

“In eight days, the deer was down to bone,” she said, citing that it takes much longer for that to happen back home where there aren’t as many predators and the temperature is much different.

During another class, Macht introduced the students to Lucia Torres, a research scientist from Nicaragua, who has been studying animals on the island for 10 years. Torres has been working with Capuchin and Spider monkeys to study their social interactions between individuals in one group and multiple groups.

Macht said Torres is studying how they search for their food among other monkeys and how they interact during the hunt.

Spider monkeys, Torres said, choose where they want to go, and have to strategize to pick a spot, whereas Capuchin monkeys don’t.

Torres said they are studying the feces from the animals to determine what and where they are eating, and are continuing analyses to better understand the animals.

“And we name the moneys when we are researching,” she said. “It gives an identity to each one, and makes me feel more connected to what I am studying.”

“We are interested in how the monkeys come together and separate,” she added.

Students also had the chance to ask questions of Macht and Torres about the environment and the research, while also having the chance to see videos of the monkeys and observe the setting around their teacher.

“I think it’s better (to do these conferences) because we can learn the differences between those areas and here,” said sixth grader Sadie Brown of the excitement of speaking to their teacher while she is on Barro Colorado Island. “It shows us the different types of animals around the world, and this one place that has a completely different species.”

Sixth grader Anya Rammohan said she enjoys getting to see the live visual of what is happening behind Macht while she is on the video conference.

“Seeing her there and the things she can bring back, and her being that close and getting to bring us with her is a good experience,” she said.

Macht said she was fortunate to have Torres, as well as scientists Greg Willis and Dr. Katharine Milton, speak to the students.

"Each scientist brings a rare and particular perspective to the conversations with the students as they talk about their research and why they're doing what they're doing," she said.

Macht said she was especially excited to have Milton speak to the students, as she has been one of her personal heroes since she was a graduate student in environmental studies at Montclair State University.

"She has been researching Howler monkeys on BCI for more than 45 years, and to get to spend a week on BCI and view its ecology through her eyes, was a personal thrill I never dreamed I would have," she said. "To be able to host her in one of my video conferences and have her chat with Hillside students was beyond my wildest dreams."