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Tiffany, Flesberg travel to Amazon rainforest for out-of-classroom experience

Elmwood senior Sophia Tiffany spent a week studying insects in the Amazon rainforest after being chosen as a JASON Learning Argonaut Program student. Photo courtesy of Kristel Flesberg1 / 3
Elmwood's Sophia Tiffany and Kristel Flesberg enjoyed many scenic views of the Amazon rainforest during their week-long JASON Learning Argonaut Program expedition. Photo courtesy of Kristel Flesberg2 / 3
Kristel Flesberg and Sophia Tiffany carried out a hands-on research project that measured the population density of insects while on their week-long expedition in the Amazon rainforest. Photo courtesy of Kristel Flesberg3 / 3

Sophia Tiffany was looking for a change of pace from her in-class science experiments at Elmwood High School when she applied for the JASON Learning Argonaut Program in December 2017. What she found was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do hands-on research in the Amazon rainforest.

"I know in Elmwood, Wis. you don't get a whole lot of opportunities to go to a tropical rainforest or to even just get out of the country or the state," the senior said. "I just wanted to experience something new."

Tiffany's week-long expedition spent working alongside entomologists collecting and cataloging insects was certainly incomparable to her everyday, synthesized science labs. Her fully-funded trip to Peru was made possible by the Elmwood School District's science curriculum program called JASON Learning. The STEM-focused package was incorporated into the district's curriculum in 2017, and Tiffany took advantage of the opportunities presented to her as soon as she could. She was selected as one of five students from across the country to travel to Peru for the expedition after a strenuous, month-long application process that required gathering letters of recommendation, medical forms, video interviews and written essays.

She was told she was selected for the trip four months after completing her application, and she reacted with shock before her excitement kicked in.

"I almost cried," Tiffany recalled. "I sat there fanning my face because I was in shock."

Tiffany admits that although she was filled with excitement for her adventure, she was also hit with expected hesitation for spending a week in a foreign place, but her hectic schedule soon didn't allow for time to worry about lack of sanitation or being far from home.

Tiffany was joined by her high school science teacher, Kristel Flesberg, who served as a supervisor on the expedition. The two left their hut-like shelters before 6 a.m. and followed a jam-packed itinerary until nightfall every day.

"By 5:50 a.m. we met at a central location where we'd take off from to go on a hike or a boat ride," Flesberg said. "Then all day long we always had somewhere to be well until after dark."

Their days were filled with researching the population density of insects, collecting data and exploring the beautiful scenery around them that differed greatly from the bluffs back home. Tiffany shared that the scenic boat rides topped her favorite memories from the trip, but that she gained an appreciation for the creepy, crawly insects she detested before her experience.

"At first I was like there's no way this is happening," Tiffany said referring to her initial response to working with insects, "but at the end I got a greater appreciation for insects and what they actually do for us. I never thought I'd eat one in my life."

When asked what drew her to the trip, Flesberg responded with, "Everything.

"The chance to do actual research out there in the Amazon rainforest ... it was a check yes in every department kind of a thing."

The two returned from their unforgettable expedition on Tuesday, Oct. 23, with not only an appreciation for the chance to venture from their typical classroom learning, but an added enthusiasm to promote the program among their classmates and colleagues.

"Just do it," Flesberg said when asked what she'd tell Elmwood students and teachers who are thinking about applying for the next round of Argonaut Program expeditions. "You're going to be outside your comfort zone, but it's an amazing experience in the end. You get different perspectives, and the whole thing is just so surreal."

Applications for the 2019 JASON Learning offered expeditions are now available in the Elmwood High School office. Take it from Tiffany; students aren't going to want to miss out on this chance to explore the world beyond Elmwood while leaving their average homework assignments behind.

"At first I was hesitant, but in the end I was so glad I applied," Tiffany said. "I wish I hadn't second guessed myself, because it was such a great experience. I think everyone should realize that they don't have to be limited by what's offered in the classroom."