SPARTA, NJ – The seventh grade science students in Cara Johnson’s class had a surprise when their substitute met with them in the media center last week.  Their teacher was saying hello to them in a video conference from a Panamanian rain forest.

Throughout the day Johnson conversed with seventh grade science classes about her experience on Barro Colorado Island.  This is the second year she was able to participant in studies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Johnson got to participate in the program after a professional development course she took through PRISM at Montclair State University, hearing about it from that program’s Jacalyn Giacalone.

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“I look forward to bringing more of my experience back to the students of Sparta,” Johnson said.

Part of her adventure was getting there; flying from New Jersey to Panama, staying overnight in a hotel in Gamboa.  From there she traveled by boat to the island. She first described the island and then took questions.

Johnson said the island was formed when the canal was built.  A lake was created by damming the Chagres River and the island was actually the top of a mountain. There were “no roads, only trails with lots of hiking paths.”

She stayed in “dorm style living quarters, with no air conditioning,” and yes, “the food is good.”

Monkeys were everywhere.  Johnson shared videos of monkeys she had taken earlier that day. There were spider monkeys, night monkeys and white-faced capuchin. The howler monkeys are the largest and there are Geoffrey’s tamarins, but she had not seen any. 

The students applauded when a photo of a toucan came on the screen.  She showed them termite mounds built above the forest floor. 

The first student question was “what is the top-level consumer on the island.” Johnson said it was the ocelot and showed a fellow researcher’s video of an ocelot hunting an iguana. 

Another asked if there were any endangered species on the island; answer yes, “quite a few.”

“Are there any invasive species,” one student asked.  Johnson said a specific type of bamboo found at the lower part of the island was not a native species.

The students got to see Johnson’s videos of leaf cutter and other ant species to go with the discussion of symbiotic relationships in the forest, including the two different animals that eat the different parts of the fruit of the Victor’s trees.

Johnson told the students the island has the “most researched rain forest.”  The Smithsonian research Center was established in 1946 but it had been a scientific draw for more than 100 years.

In the span on just one class period the students were able to see and discuss the snakes, two and three toed sloths, bats and katydids that live on the island.  There are “more than 100 types of katydids,” she said.

Johnson introduced Dr. Willis, a fellow researcher whose favorite animals to study are orangutans, flying squirrels and ocelots.  Willis told the students she began her interest in squirrels years ago in New York and New Jersey.  On the island she noticed the squirrel population was changing and wondered why, sparking her interest in studying them.

Willis described in detail the methods of studying the ocelots over multiple generations.  She told how the mothers names were then related to their babies and grandchildren.

The students were fascinated by her discussion of the Fer-de-lance and coral poisonous snakes.

They finished with a question about whether or not she had ever wanted to help an animal that was dying.  The answer was yes- a baby sloth that had been pulled off it’s mother by an eagle and then dropped.  It was too badly injured though and would not have survived.

In an interview after the video conference Johnson said, “The best part of participating in an opportunity like this is to gain a better understanding of what scientists are doing in the field, so I can connect our learning in the classroom to the real world for students.”

She said the most difficult part is missing her family especially since she has had to miss her daughter’s birthday for two years in a row. 

“I am blessed that my family, friends, and staff in Sparta fully supports this trip for me as this is by far, the best professional development opportunity I have ever experienced,” Johnson said.