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6-8 > Plants
Grade level: 9-12 Subject: Plants Duration: Two class periods
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Spirits of the Rainforest

Students will understand the following:
1. Scientists are conducting experiments to verify the powers attached to herbs and other plants by native peoples.
2. A reader must evaluate the accuracy and biases of all so-called scientific studies, especially those reported only on the Web.

For this lesson, you will need:
Access to the Internet

1. Make sure students understand that the bulk of prescription and over-the-counter drugs used in this country these days are synthetic compounds. There has always been interest in naturally occurring drugs—those that are made from plants. Point out to students that even with its long history, the subject of finding useful medicines among plants in the rain forest (and in other ecological systems) raises controversial responses from some quarters. While more and more Western physicians and other scientists are closely examining the benefits of some plants for some patients, other parties believe that native cures can be effective only for the companies that make the plants commercially available to the public. What is the truth about plants from the rain forest and other biospheres?
2. Discuss with students how they would go about using the Internet to find material about new or potential uses of plants as medicines. Where would they begin? By going straight to Web sites hosted by pharmaceutical companies? By doing keyword searches?
3. You may have students proceed to follow their own instincts to locate sites and articles. Or to save time and focus students on the same sources, you may want to refer groups of students to the following three sites screened for this project:
  • A discussion of a collaboration between Pfizer, the drug company, and the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, atpfizer
  • A field report by a neurologist who collected and studied plants used by the Machiguenga Indians in Peru, atmontana
  • A report about Chinese alternative medical treatments written for nonscientists, athealthy
4. After students have read their assigned Web articles, conduct a full-class discussion about the sources, inviting students to share what they learned from the articles.
5. Students may initiate a discussion about the possible biases of each of the three sites. If not, you will have to ask questions that lead students to reexamine the sites or at least rethink which may be more credible and which may be less so. Here are some sample questions:
  • Who stands behind the Web site? Why would you tend to trust or question such a sponsor?
  • What bias might that person, organization, or business have on the subject of plants as drugs?
  • Who had to approve the posting of this information to the Web site?
  • What does that person, organization, or business stand to gain by making this Web site available to the public?
  • What, if any, questions or doubts occur to you regarding the Web site now that we’ve had this discussion?
6. Challenge students to figure out how to follow through to verify or undercut the statements disseminated on the Web site. What kinds of additional sources can students suggest using to find out about the benefits of or problems with rain forest (and other) plants when used medicinally?
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Send students to a local pharmacy or health-products store to examine the shelves of over-the-counter products. Ask them to report back with a list of herbs and other plants that have been packaged for purchase by customers with particular complaints. What naturally occurring substance is being sold to relieve cold symptoms? As a cough suppressant? As an antidote for depression?
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Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the value of the herbal-based medicine of the Machiguenga. What impact would more expanded use of such natural pharmaceuticals have on the rest of the world? How might it affect the rainforest? Is this a worthwhile subject for further study? Is it a valid reason for preserving the rainforest?
2. Imagine what life for a family living in the rainforest might be like. How do you think the environment of the rainforest makes their family life different from yours? What challenges does life in the rainforest pose? Think about going to school, earning a living, and leisure time in particular.
3. The giant otter, which is nicknamed the “river wolf,” is considered a “social carnivore.” Analyze what is meant by these terms and contrast the giant otter’s habits with those of actual wolves.
4. Some scientists believe that identifying and studying endangered rainforest species is absolutely crucial. Others, however, believe that limited research money should be allocated to other important research projects, such as exploring space or plumbing the ocean depths. How much weight would you put on studying the rainforest? Are there other scientific endeavors that seem more important to you? Debate the allocation of scientific research money.
5. Scientists use a variety of techniques to trap animals in the rainforest. Although they never intend to harm the animals they are studying, the ethics of entrapment may be questionable. Is it fair to treat animals this way? Develop your own opinion about this sensitive subject and debate the ethical issues surrounding the trapping and containing of animals in order to study them.
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As you and the class engage in discussion, try to make notes about students’ ability to teach one another respectfully, to participate without monopolizing, and to compromise.
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Endangered Manu
On a map of South America, have your students locate Peru and Manu National Rainforest. Ask them to identify the geographical features of the region, including its topography, climate, urban centers, and population density. Then challenge them to list questions about the area’s endangerment and about preservation efforts. Further challenge them to figure how or where to get answers to their questions.

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Suggested Readings

Last of the Wild: Vanished and Vanishing Giants of the Animal World
Robert M. McClung. Linnet Books, 1997.
An in-depth look at 62 endangered animal giants from around the world, this detailed book discusses how some species have been lost forever, though others may yet be saved.

Nature in Danger: Threatened Habitats and Species
Noel Simon. Oxford University Press, 1995.
A conservationist looks at the major endangered ecosystems of the world, explaining the realities of their plight and the steps that are being taken to preserve them.

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Rain Forest Action Network
Features a “Kids’ Corner” with rainforest information re: habitats, animals, and native peoples, action projects, a “Kids’ Art Gallery”, and a Questions and Answers bulletin board.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Rainforest information, including real time pictures of canopy from webcam in Panama.

Passport to Knowledge -- Live from the Rainforest
Teacher resources on the rainforest.

Rainforest Workshop
Includes teacher resources and lesson plans.

Science in the Rain Forest Electronic Field Trip
Students can “Take a Walk in the Rainforest” to learn about rainforest plants and animals. Also, includes rainforest facts, a trivia contest, and related links.

Table of Contents of Funny Farm Exotics Web
Research on endangered parrots and conservation efforts. Sponsored by International Aviculturalist Society and World Parrot Trust.

The Living Edens: Manu
This site provides information on the people of Peru’s rainforest. It also provides information about the history of the area, flora and fauna, and conservation issues. Classroom resources, a trivia challenge, and related web links are available.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    carnivore
Definition:Any of an order of flesh-eating mammals.
Context:Giant otters are considered social carnivores, bonded with one another, yet competitively in search of meat to eat.

speaker    precarious
Definition:Dependent on chance circumstances, unknown conditions, or uncertain developments; characterized by a lack of security or stability that threatens with danger.
Context:Many species have a precarious existence in the rainforests.

speaker    predator
Definition:One that preys, destroys, or devours; an animal that lives by predation.
Context:Although the squirrel monkey may be the predator of a variety of insects, it is pursued as food by other larger raptor species.

speaker    regeneration
Definition:Renewal or restoration.
Context:The regeneration of the rainforest is essential to the lives of a multitude of species.

speaker    superbaiting
Definition:A strategy used by scientists to lure animals by overfeeding members of a dominant species until they allow more timid animals to pursue the food placed in a cage.
Context:Superbaiting allowed the scientists to capture specimens of the reclusive species.

speaker    tapir
Definition:Any of a genus of chiefly nocturnal perissodactyl ungulates of tropical America and Myanmar to Sumatra that have the snout and upper lip prolonged into a short flexible proboscis.
Context:Though a rare species, the tapir is considered a friendly, almost domesticated pet of the Machiguenga.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level:9-12
Subject area:science
Understands how species depend on one another and on the environment for survival.
Benchmark:Knows how the interrelationships and interdependencies among organisms generate stable ecosystems that fluctuate around a state of rough equilibrium for hundreds or thousands of years (e.g., growth of a population is held in check by environmental factors such as depletion of food or nesting sites or increased loss due to larger numbers of predators or parasites).

Benchmark:Knows ways in which humans can modify ecosystems and cause irreversible effects (e.g., human population growth, technology, and consumption; human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, and atmospheric changes).

Grade level:9-12
Subject area:geography
Understands how physical systems affect human systems.
Knows changes in the physical environment that have reduced the capacity of the environment to support human activity (e.g., the drought-plagued Sahel, the depleted rainforests of central Africa, the Great Plains Dust Bowl, the impact of the economic exploitation of Siberia’s resources on a fragile sub-Arctic environment).

Benchmark:Knows how humans overcome “limits to growth” imposed by physical systems (e.g., technology, human adaptation).

Benchmark:Knows factors that affect people’s attitudes, perceptions, and responses toward natural hazards (e.g., religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, previous experiences).

Grade level:6-8
Subject area:life science
Knows about the diversity and unity that characterize life.
Knows how organisms are classified into a hierarchy of groups and subgroups based on similarities that reflect their evolutionary relationships (e.g., shared derived characteristics inherited from a common ancestor; degree of kinship estimated from the similarity of DNA sequences).

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Christine LaPlaca Burrows, former social studies teacher and current freelance educator.
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