By Leslie Barr
This was my first Masterclass and I was thrilled that Westtown School supported my learning about conservation as it applies to my work as a biology teacher. The class was titled “Dr. Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation.” I began the class in September 2017 and finished in February 2018. The course consisted of 29 video lessons, (mostly talks) given by Jane Goodall in a nice relaxing setting in the present time, with some archival footage of her work in the Gombe jungle in the 1960s. In between there were opportunities to join online discussions from students around the world also taking the class.
Jane was the first field scientist to go against the scientific views at the time, and showed that chimpanzees used tools and were omnivores, not strictly vegetarian. Jane’s non-acceptance by the scientific community at the time was partially caused by her gender. There were not too many women scientists taken seriously in the 1960s and 1970s; Jane was able to challenge the paradigm and soon people started to listen. To this day she is the only human that was accepted into chimpanzee society, as one of their tribe. No one else has had this type of insider access, and Jane is now recognized as a leader in the field. People now have reaped the benefits of Jane’s work as she navigated the scientific climate and discussed, debated, and argued against those who did not support her.
I can’t help but think about other scientists who went against the grain and society took a while to come around to their ideas. Galileo was not treated very well when he suggested that the planets did not evolve around the Earth, but rather they revolved around the sun. When Stephen Hawking developed his theory of the origin of the universe, that was not wholefully accepted either. In the process of science, it often takes time for the other scientists and those who are fully ingrained in current doctrine to accept ideas that are not their own.
Jane’s class focused on the following topics: her dreams of Africa, challenges she faced when she first started her research, chimpanzee behavior, chimpanzee development and learning, animal intelligence, chimps and humans, humans and the environment, threats to animals, animal cruelty, climate change, water, land, industrial agriculture, organic farming, food as activism, advocacy strategies, communication, opening a dialogue, the next generation, TACARE and global change, the Roots and Shoots Program, and reasons for hope.
I agreed with Jane on most accounts, even though we come from very different scientific upbringings. Since I started my career as a lab scientist, I recognize that she had some tough interactions with scientists at the beginning of her career, which was unfortunate. The only things that I did not agree with was her self-reporting that she is not a scientist (I feel that she is) and her stance on GMOs. I feel that if she were to investigate more in the field of food and agriculture, she may change her stance. I wish that she could have been in our biology classes last year, when our Westtown students debated the GMO issue.
It was energizing to have the interactions with the Hub in the online community, and to learn more from other participants. One of the posts that I created was in response to living a zero-waste lifestyle: “I taught Environmental Science for a year, and in that year I learned a lot about changing my behaviors around the house. Now it’s second nature for us to buy second-hand clothing, wash our clothes less, take shorter showers, plant native plants in our garden, eat more food from local sources and grow a bigger garden. All of these changes adding up over the years my family and I do them makes a difference, especially when other friends and family members follow our lead. It all adds up to a bigger change for the better of the environment.” I learned of a good book to read this summer, Jane’s Reason for Hope, and I can’t wait to see the documentary, Jane, which was in theaters last summer. Since my family and I have a quest to visit every National Park, I discovered this foundation from our group conversation hub: https://www.npca.org/ which will offer some volunteer opportunities for when my family and I have time to do those together. If I teach intro biology or environmental science anytime in the future, I can reference this course. I recommend this course for anyone that has an interest in conservation and our planet, which should be everyone.