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Update from Panama: Just Keep Swimming

By Amanda Gibson

Amanda Gibson teaches students about biodegradability in Armila. © Morrison Mast

Things are really rolling in my work with Armila's public schools. I have begun teaching environmental science labs for each of grades 3-9, and helping out with English classes as well. So far, we've talked about ecosystems, food chains, and population pressure, with a little help from an evening screening of “Finding Nemo" during our discussion on marine ecosystems. Jokes about the dentist's office didn't quite translate, but everyone laughed when Marlin got pushed or smacked or chased by sharks (apparently slapstick humor is universal). People of all ages filled the town square to watch.

Plastic debris litters the beach. © Amanda Gibson

In the classroom this week, we are working on the concept of decomposition, the first step towards talking about trash management. For many community members, the story of trash ends when it is brought to the ocean, 'great recycler,' which they say turns everything to sand.

To tell the story of trash in a hands-on way, our experiment involves identifying different types of materials—organic, plastic, metal—and putting an example of each in a bottle of saltwater (our 'ocean'). As the weeks go by, we are tracking the changes in each material.

“A hypothesis is an educated guess; what we think will happen. What do you think will happen to our materials?" I asked my fourth grade class.
“The flower will turn brown."

“And the plastic?"

“It's not going to change."

So far, we've seen a penny oxidize, a flower decompose, and a plastic wrapper stay exactly the same. About fifty percent of my fifth grade students were surprised to see that a thin plastic wrapper didn't change color. And the fact that plastic, a universal material, cannot readily re-enter our natural system is a surprising thing.

Students participate in a lab project on decomposition. © Amanda Gibson

The environmental education goes both ways, however. Nothing has been as educational as seeing the plastic bags and bottles that held the lentils, rice, dried fruit, cookies, sunscreen, medicine, and other things I consume slowly accumulate. Without a magical trash bin, these products stay and stare at me from the corner of my kitchen. And even though I'll be using this plastic to make the cement floor of an eco-cabin, the reality of non-recyclable items has set in. I'll definitely make big changes to my lifestyle when I get back. For now, Armila is teaching me lessons about my own plastic addiction.


Amanda Gibson is Oceanic Society's first fellow, who spent her fellowship (2013-2014) living and working with the Guna indigenous community of Armila in southeastern Panama on a variety of conservation and community development projects. Amanda is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.


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