How to Start Counting Critters
A step-by-step guide to bringing a NatureMapping project to your school and getting students excited about maps and science.
This how-to article accompanies the feature "Leapin' Lizards!: Students as Data Collectors."
NatureMapping began in 1992 when ecologist Karen Dvornich, working with the U.S. Geological Survey Gap Analysis Program, began collecting data on common species and synthesizing it into diversity maps -- geographic representations of a species' range, abundance, and habitat. Schools were a natural partner for Dvornich. "Put any ten-year-old against an adult biologist, and the kid will find the snake or frog faster. So why not have kids do real stuff?" A few things to keep in mind:
1. Gear up.
Usually, teachers take a series of NatureMapping workshops before starting a project. Then, back at school, they collect data about nearby species, send it to the NatureMapping program, and do some analyses. Some teachers go on to generate larger projects with help from research professionals for training, advice, and logistics.
NatureMapping has been working with schools for more than a decade, providing modules, workshops, and logistical support. These offerings and the Web sites that announce them are a good way to learn what other schools and groups are doing. Eight states have programs ranging from long-term school-driven projects to more straightforward data collection. You can find links for them on the Washington NatureMapping Program Web site.
3. Ask for help.
Many people working in science or natural history museums, university ecology departments, and other areas of the scientific community would be thrilled to share expertise with youngsters; they just don't know whom to approach. NatureMapping organizes support teams across the country, and many state NatureMapping programs have funds available to help pay for bus rides, substitute teachers, field guides, or measuring equipment.
Any community has flora or fauna that needs surveying. NatureMapping projects can be shaped to what a school or classroom can handle. Some classes collect data on or near school grounds. Others do so outside the school day, with students watching their yards or meeting in parks to do homework. In one program, high school students monitored the activity of nocturnal reptiles and amphibians; the hardest part was convincing parents that their teenagers were going out in the middle of the night for a school project.
5. Trust yourself, and your students.
The NatureMapping program needs your data and will help ensure that it is valid. You are constantly learning and asking new questions and building confidence as you go. If you wait until you can identify every species or know all the answers, you won't get started, so be prepared to live with uncertainty, maybe even to embrace it. Let the kids know that you don't know all the answers. That makes it more exciting.
6. See technology as a tool, not a goal.
Depending on the program, NatureMapping students will use handheld global-positioning systems, mobile radio transmitters, and other nifty gadgets. They may also use sophisticated mapping software. Whenever possible, students should do a task manually before using such tools. For example, they should hand count values on a spreadsheet before having the software do it. They should find latitude and longitude on maps before having the device find them. On field trips, every student should be responsible for at least one piece of equipment, whether it be a clipboard, a yardstick, or an expensive widget. This keeps all the students engaged.
7. Be patient.
NatureMapping is not a one-size-fits-all curriculum; it's a progressive learning process. Any NatureMapping program may seem to meander at first. Take one small step at a time, and follow the natural growth of a project. Be willing to make mistakes and go into territory that you don't know, and to devote time to true exploration in your classroom.
Most of all, remember that science (and learning) is about asking questions, and that's what you must be willing to do.