Students are becoming 'scientific consultants' to the Indonesian government, working together to help track down rare plants that may hold a cure for cancer or discover why a vital cash crop is refusing to produce fruit.
Using Rainforest Researchers, a package of educational software and teaching materials developed with support from the National Science Foundation, students actively investigate such problems, in contrast to many other science-related software programs, which encourage passive viewing.
"The science in Rainforest Researchers allows students to act as scientists themselves in this adventure," said M. Patricia Morse, a marine biologist and director of NSF's instructional materials development program.
In one scenario, students search for a rare plant that may hold a cure for some cancers, closely mimicking a real scientific inquiry in which researchers from Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum attempted to find an Indonesian plant proven to thwart the AIDS virus.
Rainforest Researchers was developed jointly by NSF, the Arnold Arboretum, and Tom Snyder Productions, of Watertown, Mass. It casts students in four different roles. They can choose to be chemists, who study the basic composition of plants; taxonomists, who classify plant and animal species; ethnobotanists, who study how native people use plants as food, clothing, or medicine; or ecologists, who observe the relationships between species and their environments.
Each study team formed is given a mock budget of $40,000 to purchase the equipment it needs to conduct its field study and to cover expenses. Students use the CD-ROM, which contains professional video footage shot on location, as well as accompanying printed materials as resources to solve their problems.
Robert E. Cook, the arboretum's director, notes that the problems presented in Rainforest Researchers emphasize the importance of conserving biologically diverse areas as well as the difficulties inherent in predicting the practical value of discoveries made through basic scientific research.
In Search for the Lost Compound, one of two scenarios on the disk, students attempt to trace to its source a fragment of dried plant with suspected cancer-fighting properties that is being sold at an Indonesian jamu, or open-air market.
Cook notes that the problem had its counterpart in a search undertaken by arboretum scientists for a plant that was discovered to combat HIV. Samples of the plant were taken in Borneo in 1987 by an arboretum field team working under a grant from the National Cancer Institute. But when the plant's medicinal properties were uncovered, and a team dispatched to find it again, the researchers discovered that the original specimen had been cut down several years previously.
The field team took samples of the surrounding plants, but discovered they did not display the same anti-HIV activity, leading them to question whether they had sampled the proper plants. Only an expert's examination of a carefully preserved sample taken in the field in 1987, and related documentation, led them to understand they should have been looking for a different, though closely related, species.
Rainforest Researchers is aimed at students in grades 5 through 8, but Cook added that the product could easily be used in high schools. A hallmark of this software is that it is designed to be used in the "one-computer classroom," which is the norm in U.S. schools.