Inquiry Learning in the Amazon – Why ask Why?


I started my teaching career as a traveling teacher - pushing my cart of science supplies from room to room. Boy has my definition of a traveling teacher changed! Now it means roaming the planet with a backpack, binoculars, and students.

Canopy Walkway, Amazon

Today I spent an hour talking with two high school educators who just finished leading a 10 day expedition to the Amazon rainforest. Listening to them reflect on their experiences, I was struck by how unique this breed of educator really is. Not many would think it a brilliant idea to travel to a remote corner of the world with other people’s children. Most would argue that we are crazy - it’s too dangerous, the liability too big, the responsibility to daunting. And yet…we do it - again and again and again.

This begs my favorite question – “why” – why do we do this?  I would argue that there is a certain alchemy of the spirit that pushes/pulls us into this role of wandering educators. We love the adventure - every bit as much as our students do. We are energized by the endless parade of teachable moments that unfold each day. We delight in watching our students come alive in the world - the real world. We want the challenge of doing something different - outside the norm. I suppose, ultimately, we want to be defined by more than our lesson plans and we want our students to be defined by more than the grades on their report cards. And for some of us, that means heading to the heart of the Amazon with students in tow!

Student group discovering the Amazon

“The greatest question you can ask is WHY.”

This quote, pasted to the wall of the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies field station, drives so much of what we do in the Amazon. It keeps us honest as educators, researchers, facilitators, and learners. It is simple and profound. Three simple letters – w.h.y. – packed with so much power. For us, questions like this open the door to the universe – be it in a drop of water on the tip of a tropical leaf, the incredible camouflage of an Amazon katydid, or pondering how to engage participants in meaningful investigations of the Amazon or their own backyard. 

Asking questions primes the pump of curiosity and being curious is what drives inquiry-based learning…and if there ever was a place that can ignite curiosity and inspire inquiry, it is the Amazon!

In the Amazon, I.N.Q.U.I.R.Y. is all about:

•    active INVOLVEMENT in the learning process via field studies and hands-on research projects.

•    constructing NEW KNOWLEDGE through personal encounters with the complex rainforest ecosystem.

•    uncovering new QUESTIONS behind each tree, under each leaf, and around each river bend.

•    seeking a deeper UNDERSTANDING of your role in a sustainable future for the rainforest.

•    developing an INQUISITIVE world view that opens the door to global understanding.

•    realizing solving RIGOUROUS scientific problems is fun and you can participate as a citizen scientist.

•    discovering YOURSELF as a learner as you stretch beyond your normal comfort zone.


JOIN THE DISCUSSION: What does I.N.Q.U.I.R.Y mean to you? How do you use inquiry to ignite curiosity? What makes you curious about the Amazon?



Christa Dillabaugh is our Education and the Rainforest Editor.  A former middle school and high school science educator, she coordinates experiential field programs for educators and students in the rainforests of Central and South America.  She currently serves as education director for Amazon Rainforest Workshops loves traipsing through rainforest mud in search of teachable moments!  You can read her Amazon field notes at