Virtual Expeditions Teach U.S. Children About Amazon

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"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."

•National Geographic Today, 7 pm. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news magazine available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to request it.

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