Tropical Rainforest Education
ERIC Identifier: ED432438
Publication Date: 1997-06-00
Author: Rillero, Peter
Source: Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
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.
LOCATION AND CLIMATE
- 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 rates.
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 their structures.
- 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
- 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
CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES
- 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
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 the rainforest.
- 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
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
- 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 $50.
- 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
- 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
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. The ideas and opinions expressed in this
Digest do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI, ED, or the
Clearinghouse. This Digest is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
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