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Teaching Tropical Rainforest Biology

About the Author and Teacher: George Sly

I was born in Sullivan County, Indiana in 1946. I still reside and teach in this rural (population 18 000) county as well. My wife is a Kindergarten teacher and our daughter is Director of Nursing at the hospital in the county seat. Strip-mining for coal and farming are major enterprises in the county. Much of my childhood involved time spent wandering the fields and forests surrounding my home. These experiences were instrumental in the development of an early interest in the outdoors and biology.

I graduated from a small high school of around 140 students in 1964 and, in fact, now teach at that same school. I then attended Indiana State University and majored in Life Sciences and Secondary Education. My Master’s degree was also earned at Indiana State and included thesis work on small mammal succession on land which had been strip-mined for coal.

While doing post-graduate work at Illinois State in Normal, I became aware of the Peace Corps-Smithsonian Institution Environmental Program. This project offered me the opportunity to pursue a life-long dream of travel to exotic lands and, in 1973, I left along with my wife and daughter for a three-year stint in Malaysia. While in Malaysia, I taught vertebrate zoology at the University of Agriculture in Serdang. In Southeast Asia I gained my first exposure to the tropical rainforest biome and it instilled in me a sense of wonder and fascination that still persists.

Upon returning to the United States in 1976, I began teaching at Union High School in Dugger, Indiana. In the classroom, I soon became persuaded that the classic "textbook approach" to biology was taking the fun out of a science that I had found delightful since childhood. This motivated me to begin to develop ways of teaching biology that involved more active, participatory learning. A willingness to innovate and try new ideas, or modify existing ones, has helped biology become more fun for both my students and me.

A most exciting professional opportunity occurred in 1996 when I was selected as a NSTA/Genentech Access Excellence Fellow. The focus of the 1996 conference was ethnobotany. This not only opened up an entirely new biological world of interest for me (having focused on zoology primarily) but rekindled my passion for tropical rainforest ecology as well. As a result, I began to learn something of neotropical ecology with visits to Costa Rica in 1995 and to Ecuador in 1997.

In 1998 I experienced a second important professional development opportunity by being named a Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellow. This allowed me to study tropical rainforest ecology in Amazonian Peru as well as to continue my study of ethnobotany here at home. Thus a series of events occurring over several years, but certainly animated by the Access Excellence experience has led me to develop an intense love of the tropical rainforest biome and a strong conviction in the importance of its conservation.

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