George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technology Empowers Student Fieldwork

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Technology Empowers Student Fieldwork (Transcript)

Narrator: It's October in central Washington's wheat belt, and in the township of Waterville, everyone's on the lookout for a tiny critter called Phrynosoma Douglasii, better known as the horny toad lizard.

Man: Now when I was thirteen years old, I drove a team of six horses on a rod wheater, and I saw lots of 'em there. And they're nice little animals. They eat bugs and they do a lotta nice things.

Girl: We'd go into the dried creek bed and wed flip over rocks and my mom and I, we found ten, right just along here.

I've got twenty-nine.

Man: Actually see more on the roads than out in the field. And you stop and then you try to go out and find them, and sometimes it's hard. And if you're in a snaky area, you don't want to follow them too close.

I've found the horny toads all under here.

Dig in it.

Narrator: For the past six years, the lizard project has been a key component of the fourth grade curriculum at Waterville School. Local farmers volunteer their time to record critter sightings on data sheets provided by the students.

I'd like to welcome everybody this morning.

Narrator: On the first day of the project, the farmers bring their information to school. They meet their student partners, and help them enter data on graphs and charts which pinpoint the time.

It was just one, at three PM.

Narrator: Place.

That's too far over.

Narrator: And temperature for each sighting.

Farmer: So then where else do we go from here? Do we have to log these in on the computer?



Narrator: The lizard data is used by research Karen Dvornich, as part of a University of Washington program called NatureMapping, an effort to quantify populations of common species across the country.

Karen: The NatureMapping program is really simple: tell us what you see and where you see it. And all the schools, and all the different communities provide that information to us.

So this is all new science for us, and it's just wonderful. And we don't know what the horny toads do. We don't understand how they live in the farmland. We don't understand what they do during the winter. We don't know if they freeze.

Narrator: Working with fourth grade teacher, Diane Peterson, Dvornich helped design core curriculum materials around the yearlong project.

Diane: So we have to be reading and writing and doing math--

Karen: When I saw what the kids were supposed to do at different age levels, I said, "Oh, we have math, we have science, we have technology, we have art. We have all these components."

Student: How to catch a horny toad. The first thing you have to have is a good eye.

Diane: When we do project based learning, every learning style can be hit. The kids can use their own personal best learning style to accomplish the goals.

Farmer: That's a good picture. That looks just like the ones I've seen, actually.

Diane: We've found that for some kids, drawing a scientific illustration that's labeled with all the correct scientific words is a perfect way for them to shine and to show what they know.

Student: The tail is right there, it has stripes on it.

Narrator: During the project, students learn sophisticated computer programs like ArtView, and they display their findings on a class webpage at the end of the year.

Farmer: Okay, it's twenty-six, twenty-three. What maps do I need?

Diane: We start very simply with some paper maps and we learn how to find township range and section. And now what does this look like on the computer?

Farmer: Let's zoom into this area right here.

Diane: And we practice, and everybody has a turn. It's a long process, and there's a high learning curve. The technology's easier for the kids than it is for me.

Student: We need to find T twenty-eight.

Diane: Involving the farmers who may or may not have had the best experience in school, getting them back into school for a really positive experience, they're just amazed at what the kids know, and relationships are formed between these kids and the farmers, that go way beyond this project.

Mark: I don't like to call these young people kids, because kids are young goats. These are young adults. They've got a tremendous teacher.

Karen: So you want to put your GPSs up this way. Those six numbers, those numbers you see there, are satellites, circling the earth.


Narrator: Later in the day, students travel to a nearby field to learn new techniques in lizard tracking, with the latest ground positioning satellite technology.

Karen: They feel very comfortable with any of the technology nowadays. They follow their instructions very well, because they're serious about it.

You see that word "position?" Tap on the position and look for status.

It's not a field trip. When we go out there, the kids know that we're doing real science and they're much more alert. If it was just a field trip, they wouldn't be there, 'cause what does it really mean?

So if we know where horny toads are, we want you to go to that site and we want you to write down that latitude and longitude on your paper.

I've seen a huge difference when the kids realize that they are junior scientists. I treat them as junior scientists. I speak to them as junior scientists. I don't simplify anything, I define everything that I'm telling them so they can use the same terms when they wanna talk to another scientist.

Narrator: After receiving their initial instructions, the young scientists took off at a gallop, each hoping to be the first to spot a lizard.

And watch if there's some in there.

We're not finding anything.

Narrator: But after combing the area, the only toad they found was the one provided by researcher Megan Lahti.

See, there she is.

Narrator: She had attached a radio collar to a toad's back to demonstrate another way of tracking.

Megan: And turn it on and turn it loud enough so that everybody can hear the beeps.

I think that this is far more beneficial than a lot of the science that I had done in my elementary years, and I think the fact that getting the kids out into the field and helping them understand science as real professional scientists do, using GPS and other technologies, is very beneficial to them.

Do you see her?

All: Yeah.

Jessie: The first time that I found out I was gonna be doing horny toad work, I was really excited, and it's really exciting today, because I've been working hard on these projects. I was hoping to be a marine biologist and a scientist, working with lizards and stuff, so this is really fun for me, and it gives me a heads up on what I'm gonna do in the future, maybe, if I make it, yeah. And so that's pretty much what I'm gonna do.

Oh, right here, right here.

Diane: I like to see kids excited about learning.

Oh, sweet.

Diane: And that's what I see when they're working on a project like this.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Robert O. Weller
  • Michael Curtiss


  • Michael Pritchard

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Editor's Note: Since we first reported this story, NatureMapping moved from the University of Washington to become an independent foundation, which gave the program more freedom to integrate student field research projects and the latest technology for data collection and analyses. The Adopt-a-Farmer Project has been going strong for more than a decade, and now every grade in the Waterville Elementary School participates. Click here for an interactive map of all NatureMapping projects.

Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! I got involved in GIS and GPS use in college. I love seeing this technology used at such a young age. I am working on my MEd and Elementary Ed. certification. I look forward to using such technology with my elementary students in the future!

Briar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A great idea, but as a biologist I cringed when I saw the kids flipping rocks and not returning them to the position in which they were found. These rocks may be important cover to the lizards, and when moved the characteristics that might make them good cover will be altered. As young biologists, they should be taught that you leave nature how you found it!

Noble Roripaugh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a question, are horney toads born or hatched?

Diane Petersen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm the teacher in the video. This is a misleading thing in the video. When we go lizard tracking for "real",we do not run and we definitely return things where we found them. Horny toads are not found under rocks normally. we find them by slowly walking across a plowed field and looking very carefully. I think they wanted to show student enthusiasm.

Joe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Horny Toads are hatched form eggs.

Karen Dvornich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Pigmy Short-horned lizard (aka Horny toad) give birth to live babies mainly because they live in higher elevation and colder areas than the rest of the horny toad species. The rest lay eggs.

Bunny's picture

I first heared of GIS and GPS six years ago. Now, they can use them in education. It is a great idea.

Linda Martin's picture
Linda Martin
Advanced Academics Resource Teacher from Reston, VA

I'm glad you brought that up. I am taking students out to a local wildlife area for a summer science academy and we're going to be doing a pond study. I've been thinking of the advice I want to give them and I will definitely include this. We began studying ecosystems a few years back (same students) in our own schoolyard woodland, so they have been learning these guidelines along the way. It's been an enriching (almost spiritual!) experience for all of us!

Erica's picture

There are lots of science grants on

These are just two of the many posted there:

Grants to New Jersey and Delaware Educators Creating Environmental Awareness Curriculum
Deadline: 06/15/2012
Grants of up to $3,500 to New Jersey and Delaware classroom teachers (grades K-9) that successfully connect their students' knowledge of science, mathematics, computer science, and/or technology with an appreciation for the environment. The purpose of these grants is to provide financial resources...

Grants to Support Environmental Projects in the Pacific Northwest
Deadline: 06/15/2012
Grants of up to $25,000 for specific environmental projects in the Pacific Northwest. Qualified organizations can receive funding for conservation of large, biologically significant terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, preservation of biological diversity, projects that broaden the environmental...

cohen's picture

Fourth-grade students make meaningful contributions to science through the nationwide NatureMapping program.This is how technology works:)
Android Spy

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