Virtual Expeditions Teach U.S. Children About Amazon

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
October 17, 2001
Children from all over the United States are exploring the Amazon. They
are visiting towns, exploring regions, interacting with indigenous
tribes, and investigating specific issues—logging or oil drilling
in the rain forest, for example. But they are doing all this from the
safety of their classrooms through the Internet.

Dan Beuttner, an explorer who is currently leading an Amazon trek in Peru, combines his passion for exploration and his love for the Internet by using technology to link ongoing expeditions to thousands of classrooms. In the past three weeks he has connected the Peruvian Amazon with children across the United States.

"These quests are very much built on the notion that there are lots of people who would love to do these adventures," said Beuttner. "Our goal is to use technology not only to put people in the driver's seat but to put them in position where they can make real discoveries and indeed direct an expedition thousands of miles away," said Beuttner.

The Amazon expedition, called Amazon Quest, is just one of several organized by Beuttner.

The focus of the current expedition is conservation.

"Amazon Quest is a mission about a fragile world," said John Fox, the teams' research director and anthropologist. "A fragile world about animals and plants and a fragile world of people."

There are 50 or more still "uncontacted" indigenous tribes located throughout the Amazon—people who are still hunting and gathering—who are living along the most remote river tributaries and willfully staying away from civilization, said Fox. "So part of Amazon Quest is understanding the challenges for the indigenous people like that. How do we protect those kinds of peoples and cultures into the next century."

With the aid of a few modern gadgets—laptop computers, a satellite dish, and a portable electrical generator—Beuttner and his team are able to broadcast live interviews, and post movies and field reports from remote locations daily. About 200,000 school children log on every day.

Children Vote on Ethical Dilemmas

The children can log on to the teams' site and follow the expedition. Every day they are asked to vote on an ethical dilemma faced by the Amazon Quest expedition. Recently, for example, the voters had to decide whether the team should buy animal products—jaguar skins, caiman hides, macaw feathers, and toucan beaks—which encourages the killing of animals, some of which are endangered.

Interviews with children at the Cyber Village Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, reveal that these interactive explorations are a hit.

"You can read for hours and not understand it, whereas here…it is interactive [and] I can learn more in a shorter time. I like that because it's easier for me and it also makes learning fun," said Theo Sandberg.

I'm looking forward to learning about a river that's never been explored before, said Sandberg. "I've always thought now we know everything because we have satellites. Well this has never been charted before, so I think it will be interesting to find out how that works—and maybe what people are doing along this river that maybe we don't know about yet."

Katie Haga, another Cyber Academy student, said: "You get to see how different people live and how their everyday lives are—and how much different they are from you. But again lots of them are so much alike."

One feature that makes these interactive expeditions particularly attractive to children is that they can express their opinions on various issues and actually make a difference.

"I'm always presented with different ethical dilemmas. Should we take pictures of people without asking permission, for example. Kids decide that and thus set the policy for the expedition, so they have a feeling of ownership," said Beuttner.

Other dilemmas have included whether Beuttner's team should send machetes to a tribe that has never seen metal before; whether to accept a stone ax received as a gift; and whether the team should send a team member home after an encounter with a possibly rabid bat.

One issue which triggered a tremendous response was an expedition report describing the environmental, social, and economic impacts of oil and gas companies on the indigenous tribes in Peru.

U.S. Children Petitioned President of Peru

Over a thousand children signed an online petition asking Peru's President to save one million acres (400,000 hectares) of rain forest from any sort of development.

"If you get together with a whole bunch of people you can make a difference in so many ways," said Haga. This could be "just preserving a piece of land or something, or writing a petition…and sending it to someone," she said.

"It's a really good thing, because usually kids just sit back and let the adults handle it. But kids, yeah, we can probably make more of a difference than usual," said Kathryn Moss.

Various expeditions have taken Beuttner from the southern to the northern tip of Africa, across China's Silk Road, to the Maya ruins, and to the Galápagos Islands, among others. However, Amazon Quest, which began three weeks ago, has been "more difficult and dangerous than any other," said Beuttner.

"My brother was stung by a venomous stingray and the photographer, David, was nicked by a bat we were afraid was rabid, so we had to fly him back to Maine," said Beuttner.

With all the perils that Beuttner and his colleagues face, however, nobody seems ready to quit.

"This is the best job in the world. I mean we sit around and think up cool and meaningful expeditions," said Beuttner. "You have this feeling that you impact a life while doing what you love."

Fox added: "What makes it exciting for me and keeps me from being jaded after doing this a number of years is that I'm doing it for kids. Everything I learn and send back is being consumed by kids who are processing it, and I think ultimately it is changing the way they feel about the world."

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